The Spanish Cabinet on Tuesday approved the end of the mandatory use of face masks in most indoor spaces. The decision came 699 days after the first mask mandate was issued on May 20, 2020. As of Wednesday, a face covering will no longer need to be worn in enclosed spaces, except on public transportation and in taxis, healthcare centers, senior living homes (for visitors and workers) and pharmacies.
Masks will no longer be mandatory in workplaces “as a general rule,” said Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias. Each company is left to make its own decision about usage depending on the relevant risks. Experts from Spain’s Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System (CISNS) recommend wearing masks in situations where colleagues are closer than 1.5 meters apart. A day after the Cabinet issued the resolution, most large companies and public institutions had yet to make a decision on the use of face masks.
It is now up to the individual to decide on whether to wear a mask, according to their level of vulnerability to the virus, the spaces they inhabit and the cautionary measures they want to take. Darias emphasized that the decision marked “an important day,” and was made thanks to Spain’s high vaccination rate and “in a favorable epidemiological context, which permits the flexibility of one of the pandemic’s most symbolic elements.”
The new norm, published on Wednesday in the Official State Gazette (BOE), specifies the places where mask usage remains obligatory, such as airplanes, trains, bus transportation and boats, in the last case only when passengers cannot maintain a distance of 1.5 meters. Masks also remain mandatory in healthcare facilities, including hospitals (where patients can remove them in their rooms), healthcare centers, dental clinics, fertility and abortion clinics, blood transfusion facilities, tissue banks, mental health centers, pharmacies and orthopedists. Visitors and workers at care homes will also need to wear face masks, but not the residents. It will no longer be mandatory to wear masks in large gatherings or sports events, such as soccer or basketball games, whether indoors or outdoors.
The Spanish Health Ministry called on Spaniards to use masks “responsibly,” particularly if they are vulnerable to Covid-19. This group includes the over-60 population, pregnant women, the immunocompromised, as well as teachers with any of those conditions. Individuals in these categories are recommended to continue wearing face masks in small or poorly ventilated crowded indoor spaces, especially if spending significant time there.
Almost two years of indoor masking
The end of the mandate comes after authorities lifted the requirement to wear masks in outdoor spaces. The continued rollback of the measure will depend on hospital occupation rates and the spread of Covid-19 cases. Public transportation could be the next mask-free space, while experts argue that they should be instituted permanently in healthcare facilities, at least during the winter.
The Health Ministry is confident that it will not have to reverse the decision, but Darias acknowledged that it could happen. “One of the lessons we have learned from this pandemic is that we have to be prepared not only for current threats, but also for future ones. The Spanish government is not letting its guard down,” Darias said in an interview published last weekend in EL PAÍS.
When the mask mandate was first issued in May 2020, it required facial coverings outdoors and in all public spaces. Until then, masks had only been required on public transportation. The order became law in March 2021, when Congress approved the measure to mandate mask usage at all times, in outdoor and indoor spaces, regardless of distance. In June, a royal decree lifted the requirement to use the mask outdoors.
As the omicron wave advanced in December, the government reinstated the requirement to wear face masks outdoors. Experts criticized the measure as merely cosmetic. It lasted a month and a half, until February, when outdoor mask use became optional once again.
With this step, Spain joins most of the countries in the European Union, where masks are no longer obligatory indoors. Italy and Portugal still maintain the measure.