Spanish Health Ministry considering making masks obligatory in public

For now, the use of a face covering is only compulsory on public transport, but the central government is consulting with the regions on extending the rules

Women wearing masks wait in line to enter a store in Seville on Tuesday.
Women wearing masks wait in line to enter a store in Seville on Tuesday.Julio Muñoz (EFE)
Pablo Linde

Face masks have become an ever-more present part of the daily life of Spaniards since the coronavirus crisis began. To begin with, the Health Ministry did not recommend them, calling them “unnecessary” and even “counterproductive.” Several weeks later, there was a U-turn, and it made them obligatory on public transport from May 4 onward.

Now the Spanish Health Ministry is considering making them compulsory in practically all public spaces.

At a meeting with the regional health authorities on Monday, Health Minister Salvador Illa asked for the opinion of the regions as to whether it should be a recommendation or an obligation for people to wear masks out on the street. Responding to questions from EL PAÍS as to whether the measure is being considered, the ministry responded that any new decision will be communicated to the public, but that for now the current protocols remain in place. These are, obligatory use of masks on public transport, and their recommended use when a safe distance of two meters cannot be maintained.

Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, who acts as a spokesperson for the Health Ministry at a daily press conference, said on Tuesday that he understood that the wider use of masks be “put on the table,” although he warned that it would have to be done “with great care.”

The best mask is a two-meter distance
Fernando Simón

Simón added: “Now we have to overact a bit, and while it is aimed at reducing risks this is acceptable, but not everyone can use them in the same way, and not everyone can wear them for a long time. There are probably no problems if it is for a few minutes on the Metro or on the bus, but more time can create problems for people with anxiety, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease or any major respiratory restriction, as well as for younger children.”

Simón expressed opposition to making masks obligatory on public transport when asked, just days before the Health Ministry introduced the regulation. On Tuesday he was more cautious. “I’m not going to give an opinion for or against them being obligatory,” he said. “There is now a high recommendation for anyone who goes onto the street [to wear one]. Making them obligatory is to overact a bit, it might be OK, but perhaps we should act in other areas. The best mask is a two-meter distance.”

Andalusia, Madrid and Murcia are more keen to widen the recommendations for the use of masks. Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP) said on Monday during an interview with radio network Onda Cero that she was in favor of making them compulsory in order to pass from Phase 0 to Phase 1 of the government’s coronavirus deescalation program.

In Castilla y León, the PP-run administration has requested more clarity from the government. “We are maintaining the recommendation of their use in closed spaces and where safe distances can’t be maintained,” sources said.

EL PAÍS has requested the opinion of all regions. Valencia, Extremadura, Cantabria, Aragón and the Canary Islands said that they have not requested measures in addition to those that already exist, and that they will apply those set out in the Official State Gazette (BOE). The remaining eight did not respond.

Adults take exercise on a Madrid street at the weekend. During these periods it has been impossible to maintain safe distances in some areas.
Adults take exercise on a Madrid street at the weekend. During these periods it has been impossible to maintain safe distances in some areas.Joaquin Corchero / Europa Press (Europa Press)

During the first steps to relax Spain’s confinement measures, which were among the strictest in the world, it was clear that in many public spaces, in particular in big cities, it is impossible to maintain safe distances when, for example, adults take walks or exercise or parents take their children outside. Francisco Linde, from the Pneumology team at the Quirón Salud hospital in Málaga, recommends using masks on the street and while doing exercise given that keeping two meters away from others is practically impossible. “Given that there is no competitive sport at the moment and the majority of people are not training for events, wearing a mask is preferable, even if it’s at the cost of lower intensity,” he explained.

‘False sense of security’

Pedro Gullón, from the Spanish Epidemiological Society, believes that the recommendations are going to increase in closed spaces, where keeping a safe distance is more complicated, but he’s not so clear about open spaces. “There is scientific debate on the subject, but there is no consensus about what might be best,” he said. “There are also contraindications such as the false sense of security, or that we touch our face more, so I think that we have to focus more on physical distance.”

Hygienic or surgical masks are being recommended in Spain for those who are not in contact with coronavirus patients, and work as a barrier to stop someone who has the virus from infecting someone else. The masks known as FPP2 and FPP3 are for personal protective equipment (PPE), and are only recommended for people taking care of the sick. Experts say that unless people have had training, they wear these masks incorrectly. Despite this, the Madrid regional government is this week distributing millions of FPP2 masks to the general public for free.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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