Barely a month has passed since Spain eased rules on the use of masks outdoors, and some regions are already calling for restrictions to be tightened again. As the fifth wave of the coronavirus progresses, with the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 population now at 622, some regional governments are requiring or recommending that citizens use face coverings at all times to reduce the risk. risk of catching the virus.
The lower house of the Spanish parliament, the Congress of Deputies, is due to debate on Wednesday whether or not to ratify the Cabinet decree that allows the removal of masks outside, provided that a social distancing of 1.5 meters can be respected . Although some parties disagree with the measure, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) – whose coalition government with Unidas Podemos does not have a working majority – is expected to find the support he needs.
The regional prime minister of the Basque Country, Iñigo Urkullu, is among those who have called on Sánchez to put the rules back in place. The Balearic Islands, meanwhile, have approved the recommendation of masks outdoors whenever citizens come into contact with people outside their homes. Experts consulted by EL PAÍS expressed their support for the measure on the grounds that it could serve to alert the population that the pandemic is not over and that they must not let their guard down.
From a scientific point of view, I do not see the need for it. It looks like the curve is flattening, so cases will start to go down, whether [masks] are made mandatory at all times or not
Toni Trilla, Barcelona Hospital Clinic
It was June 26 when the rules changed and the Spaniards got to see each other again. Scientific evidence has shown transmission in outdoor settings to be very low, but experts remain divided over the convenience of keeping the restriction in place as Covid-19 vaccine coverage continues to be low. “We are approaching normality every day,” Prime Minister Sánchez said when announcing the new rules. “We want the economy to recover and this recovery to be fair and sustainable.”
At that time, the incidence was only 95 cases per 100,000 population, and the country was heading optimistically into summer, despite the infection curve starting to rise – coronavirus outbreaks on travel. students were the first incidents that raised the alarm.
“The decision was taken too early and it was a mistake,” Elías Bendodo, Andalusian government spokesman, said on Tuesday. The southern region continued to recommend that its citizens wear masks at all times, and Tuesday Bendodo lent his voice to Urkullu’s request to wear masks at all times. Andalusia has also filed an application with its Regional High Court for permission to re-establish a nighttime curfew in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
Catalonia, which currently has the highest incidence in Spain with 1,240 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, has already implemented a nighttime curfew in more than 100 municipalities, and has closed its nightclubs and its bars unless they are outside. The government of the northeast region is also in favor of making the mask mandatory again in all contexts. But in Valencia, regional prime minister Ximo Puig ruled out such a change, although he recommended the use of masks “if you have any doubts” that there might be crowds.
Health Minister Carolina Darias said on Tuesday that the government had taken “extremely cautious and gradual steps”. She continued: “Masks continue to be mandatory and it is only in very specific situations that they are not: that is, when outdoors and social distancing 1.5 meter can be maintained. We’ve seen pictures that we don’t like, ”she continued, referring to crowds of people without masks. “But it is not a question of the rule, but rather of breaking the rule.”
The experts consulted also stress that the relaxation of the mask rules is not to blame for this explosive fifth wave. According to Toni Trilla, head of the epidemiology and preventive medicine department at the Clínic Hospital in Barcelona, ”the damage was already done” when the rules were changed. Transmission had already increased, but new cases had not yet been detected. “Infections occur when people were together, in crowds, without a mask. Did the rules ever allow masks to be removed in this context? No. If everyone was doing it right, we would be much better off, ”he adds.
Óscar Zurriaga, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Epidemiology, agrees. “Using masks outside when there are no crowds is of no use – not now, not a year ago,” he argues. “Reintroducing them would bring us back to where we were, but it’s true that it’s a symbolic element and it sends a message.” The epidemiologist argues that while the relaxation of mask rules a few weeks ago sent a message of “optimism and false security that the pandemic was over,” a U-turn that would make them mandatory again would serve warning people not to give up their guard. “The impact would be minor as many people still use them, but the benefit could be greater compared to additional measures,” concludes Zurriaga.
Trilla thinks the reimposition of masks in all outdoor environments “might serve as an example,” but he cautions that “from a scientific point of view, I don’t see the need for it. It looks like the curve is flattening. , so the cases will start to drop, whether [masks] are made mandatory at all times or not. Is this a necessary measure? No. But if implemented, it will help rather than cause damage.
A decline in masks could however have a negative effect on the population. “We would be back in a world where the government is not respected by the citizens because it zigzags”, argues Rafael M. Ortí Lucas, president of the Spanish Society of Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Hygiene. The epidemiologist believes that the government acted too soon when it changed the rules on masks because it sent the message that “it was over”. But for now, he continues, “the use of masks could be kept as it is if there was more health education.” If they were to be made mandatory again, the “psychological effect of the measure” at a time when the epidemiological curve is on the rise could also help curb transmission, he argues.
Zurriaga, meanwhile, is concerned that U-turns with these measures will negatively affect the rule. “The citizens are extremely confused,” he said. “We ask them one thing and then the other way around, and in addition, we ask them to assess the risk in each situation. It is very uncomfortable. “
With a report of Cristina Vázquez, Juan Navarro, Mikel Ormazabal and Javier Martín-Arroyo.
english version by Simon Hunter.