The risks of ending outdoor mask rules in Spain

Most experts agree that the time has come to relax the restrictions, but warn that there will still be open-air settings requiring face coverings in order to prevent coronavirus transmission

The end of masking mandates in Spain will be the biggest symbol of the end of the country’s Covid-19 epidemic. A significant step is about to be taken on Saturday, June 26, when outdoor masking will no longer be mandatory. But for months to come, face coverings will still be required indoors and in risky outdoor settings.

The exact details of the new legislation are still unknown. The Spanish government is expected to approve it at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting on Thursday, and it will go into effect on Saturday. Sources at the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System (CISNS), which brings together national and regional health authorities, said that people will be allowed to go unmasked in outdoor spaces where it is possible to maintain a safe distance of 1.5 meters between people from different social bubbles.

If these guidelines are finally adopted, masks will remain mandatory at crowded events, on busy streets and at street markets. They will also be required while standing in line outdoors, or when people stop to talk without observing a physical distance.

There are fewer infections outdoors than indoors. But there are still infections when you are talking near other people, for example at sidewalk cafés
José Luis Jiménez, chemistry professor at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Most of the experts consulted by EL PAÍS agree that the time has come to relax the rules a little, now that infection rates are down and the vaccination campaign is making good progress. But they also warn that if citizens fail to understand that there will still be numerous situations requiring the use of masks, even outdoors, things could easily go wrong.

In broad terms, there are three main non-pharmaceutical actions that help prevent coronavirus transmission: barriers (masks), ventilation and distance.

Rafael M. Ortí Lucas, president of the Spanish Preventive Medicine Society, explains that people should follow the two-out-of-three rule when assessing the risk of any setting. And that is why he – and nearly the entire scientific community – agree that masks were never necessary in the first place in outdoor solitary spaces where the air flows freely.

But street settings are more debatable. “If one cannot keep a safe distance, then the other two elements should be there: ventilation and barrier. At least until we reach infection and vaccination rates that allow us to be even more flexible,” says Ortí Lucas.

The two-out-of-three rule should be observed: distance, barrier and ventilation.
The two-out-of-three rule should be observed: distance, barrier and ventilation. Andrea Comas

According to this expert, this will happen when places with fewer than 50 diagnosed cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period (currently, this is the case in the Balearic Islands, Galicia, Murcia, the Valencia region and the exclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla) have managed to fully vaccinate over 50% of the population. No Spanish territory has reached that point yet, with the national average standing at a little over 30%.

José Luis Jiménez, a chemistry professor and aerosols expert from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, believes that the end of outdoor mask rules in Spain is a good opportunity for effective communication with the public on the transmission risks of various settings.

“There are fewer infections outdoors than indoors. But there are still infections when you are talking near other people, for example at sidewalk cafés,” he says. “Have we communicated that if there are people nearby, it is strongly recommended to keep wearing [a mask]? Are we underscoring that it is still very important to keep wearing it indoors? And that adjusting the mask properly, without any gaps, is very important?”

Masks will have to be worn in closed spaces and public transportation for a while longer
José Martínez Olmos, of the Andalusian School of Public Health

José Martínez Olmos, of the Andalusian School of Public Health, notes that in such a scenario, it is very important to stress that people should take a mask with them whenever they go out, to use if necessary. He also says that unvaccinated people should take special care to wear their masks in settings without physical distancing. “And of course, masks will have to be worn in closed spaces and public transportation for a while longer,” he adds.

Martínez Olmos also underscores the need to raise awareness among young people, who have been less at risk of serious disease during the pandemic but who are now more exposed to the virus as the latter finds fewer hosts among the older, vaccinated population.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the greatest risk of infection lies in closed, poorly ventilated spaces where people share infected air. Until now, the mask-at-all-times rule made it more difficult to forget to wear one when walking into an indoor space. With the new, more relaxed rules, it will be important to remember to do so.

“Don’t come up with excuses. If you are going into a closed space, you have to wear it,” says the pharmacist and communicator Gemma del Caño. “Don’t put store workers in a position to have to argue with you. You wouldn’t go shopping without money, right? This is the same thing.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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