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FACE MASKS

Spain’s Asturias and Cantabria regions call for return of masks indoors

Authorities in the two northern regions are asking residents to keep their masks on in indoor public settings only days after the national government scrapped the face covering requirement after two years in place. 

Spain's Asturias and Cantabria regions call for return of masks indoors
Not all regional governments are convinced that the indoor mask rule should have been lifted yet. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

On Wednesday April 20th, Pedro Sánchez’s government officially lifted the requirement of wearing a mask in most indoor public spaces in Spain, a symbolic moment for the country as it was the last major Covid-19 restriction in force. 

After 700 days in place, the end of most mandatory mask wearing hasn’t convinced everyone, and opposition to the end of the measure is particularly high in Asturias and Cantabria, two neighbouring regions along Spain’s northern coast.

READ ALSO:  Your answers – Will you continue wearing a mask indoors in Spain?

Authorities in both territories want to return to compulsory mask wearing in indoor spaces and are encouraging under-60s to get tested for Covid-19.

In the Principality of Asturias, this cautious reasoning is explained by the fact that Covid-19 hospitalisations have been putting more pressure on the health system over the past weeks, and the fortnightly infection rate in over-60s is in the high-risk category (977 cases per 100,000).

According to the Asturian government, one in three people in the region is over 60 and during previous Covid waves the health system has been overburdened with patients in this age group.

Aside from their insistence on keeping masks on indoors (except for in schools), Asturian authorities are looking for ways to maintain quarantine for positive cases – even though the national Health Ministry has scrapped this for asymptomatic and mild cases – as well as requesting a second booster dose for people over 80 and those in care homes, which Madrid is likely to offer

Cantabrian president Miguel Ángel Revilla has also asked his citizens to wear a mask where “there are people” as “the virus is still there”. 

Cantabria’s fortnightly infection rate for people over 60 is also high at present (826 cases per 100,000 people) and local health authorities are working on implementing an early detection system to combat another possible coronavirus wave, while acknowledging that so far there has been no obvious spike in infections after the Easter holidays.

The two regional governments have been among the strictest in terms of Covid-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic and their current stance clashes with that of Pedro Sánchez’s administration, which is adamant on Spain entering a new stage of the pandemic where Covid-19 is treated like the flu and the focus is primarily on protecting the most vulnerable.

From a legal standpoint, Cantabria and Asturias’ calls for a return to full indoor mask wearing can only be recommendations for their populations, as mask legislation can solely be implemented on a national government level.

But their wariness for the end of mask wearing is shared by many health experts who see it more as a political decision than one based on scientific fact.

Just as Spain dropped its indoor mask-wearing rules on April 20th, Spanish health authorities warned that a new highly contagious but largely unstudied Covid variant has been detected in the country.

The national Health Ministry hasn’t ruled out toughening mask rules if the Covid situation were to worse in Spain, but for the near future it seems unlikely Madrid will backtrack on its latest decision. 

The ministry headed by Carolina Darias does recommend that those over 60, immunosuppressed people, pregnant women and people in their company continue with the “responsible use” of face masks indoors.

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FACE MASKS

How likely is it that Spain will make face masks mandatory indoors again?

Face masks ceased to be obligatory indoors in Spain in late April 2022, but could the recent rise in Covid-19 cases force the Spanish government to reconsider whether the rule should be brought back?

How likely is it that Spain will make face masks mandatory indoors again?

Just a little over two months since the indoor mask rule was dropped, Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias has recommended people wear face masks again in indoor public settings, as Covid cases and hospitalisations in late June and early July returned to levels not seen since February 2022.

READ ALSO: Spain calls for return of face masks indoors as Covid cases rise

With Spain currently in the midst of an eighth Covid wave, face masks are currently only mandatory on public transport, in pharmacies, health centres and care homes, but could the Spanish government make them obligatory in all indoor public spaces once again?

For over two years, the use of face masks was required in indoor public spaces in Spain and for some of that time, they were required outdoors too.

Masks became an integral part of life in Spain, from serving to make political statements to becoming a fashion accessory. They changed the way Spaniards greeted each other and even caused psychological problems among young people who became scared of showing their faces in public.

For the past few months, aided by the government’s policy of treating Covid-19 like an endemic disease similar to the flu, and their decision to lift quarantine for mild and asymptomatic cases and ceasing to count all cases, many people have ended up assuming that the pandemic was over.

This was further fuelled by the return of mass events such as festivals and concerts. In Barcelona, the Primavera Sound music festival returned for the first time since the start of the pandemic but was marred by several high-profile bands having to cancel because of Covid-19 infections. Threads on social media also suggest that many festival-goers caught Covid-19 while at the event.

Spain is currently experiencing what the Spanish media have dubbed a new “silent Covid wave” as there are hardly any restrictions and no official figures on the true number of people who have become infected recently.

According to the latest data from Spain’s Ministry of Health, Covid-19 hospitalisations have increased by 21 percent in the last seven days (that’s among people aged 60 or older and serious cases) and the number in the ICU has shot up by 16 percent.

On Wednesday July 7th, ministry data showed that 11,586 were in hospital with Covid-19 in Spain and 502 were in the ICU.

What each region’s health authorities think about the return of face masks

As usual, each of Spain’s 17 regions has slightly differing opinions on the use of face masks, but the general consensus is that most of them are recommending wearing masks indoors once again, particularly for the vulnerable and the elderly. 

Madrid

Madrid’s Vice President Enrique Ossorio suggested that masks should be reintroduced in certain situations, due to the rise of cases seen in the region. Masks should be worn by “vulnerable people, those who are immunosuppressed and those who are pregnant,” he argued.

Ossorio also recommended that the use of face masks be extended to enclosed public spaces and large events.

Catalonia

Catalan Health Minister Josep Maria Argimon recommended that those recovering from Covid should continue to wear a mask due to the increase in Covid patients admitted to the ICU in the region, which has increased from 26 to 46 in the space of just three weeks.  

Valencia

The government of Valencia has issued an alert after Covid cases in the region more than doubled in the week leading up to July 4th and has also asked for the return of masks in indoor settings.

The president of the Valencia College of Nursing Laura Almudéver also recommended on Monday July 4th that people should return to wearing masks in indoor spaces, where a distance from others couldn’t be maintained.

Canary Islands

The head of the Immunology Department of the Canary Island government Amós García Rojas on July 3rd explained that due to the rise in cases on the islands, it would be “necessary to maintain certain restrictions”. 

However, he did not rule out the need to “take measures” again, to protect the elderly and the vulnerable. “Perhaps the obligation to wear a mask indoors may be reintroduced if the situation does not improve,” he continued.  

Andalusia  

The Andalusian government has not commented on the general use of masks indoors but has insisted that they will not become mandatory again in schools and has also stated that they will continue to be required on public transport.

Balearic Islands  

The Health Minister of the Balearic Islands´ government Patricia Gómez Picard has said that it’s “advisable” for the vulnerable to wear masks in indoor public spaces but has ruled out mandatory measures.

Will face masks become mandatory again in Spain?

As face mask rules fall under national legislation and not regional, it’s up to Spain’s national government to decide and not the individual regions. 

As the situation stands, the national Health Ministry has ruled out making masks compulsory again.

“We’re calling for caution as we always do when there is a considerable increase in the infection rate,” Health Minister Carolina Darias told journalists in early July.

“But when it comes to face masks, it’s a recommendation, because we’ve got an extremely high vaccination rate with 95 million doses having been administered”.

So it seems highly unlikely that masks will become compulsory again in all outdoor or indoor settings in Spain in the near future, despite rising infections.

It could well be that the indoor places where it’s still mandatory to wear a mask – public transport, health centres and care homes – continue to have this rule throughout the summer, perhaps even longer.

But a return to the across-the-board rule won’t happen unless any new Covid-19 subvariants have different and severe symptoms that escape the effectiveness of current vaccines.

The new Omicron subvariants BA4 and BA5 are more transmissible and research shows they can evade vaccination immunity, but their symptoms are milder than previous variants.

Remember as well that the fact that masks are not mandatory in almost all situations currently in Spain does not mean you shouldn’t wear one in certain situations where you think you could be more at risk of catching the virus.

Spanish virologists and health experts such as Quique Bassat, José Manuel Bautista, María del Mar Tomás or José de las Morenas all believe that in the current context of increased prevalence of Covid-19, it’s common sense to take extra precautions in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor areas.

You don’t have to of course, nobody is forcing you to anymore in almost all daily situations, but it’s up to you if you’d rather wear a mask for a few minutes or feel unwell for several days, as well as potentially infect your loved ones who are vulnerable.

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