Masks rules get tighter in Europe in winter’s COVID-19 wave

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Italy, Spain and other European countries are reinstating or tightening mask mandates as their hospitals struggle with rising numbers of COVID-19 patients

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Other countries are taking similar actions as the more permeable – yet, apparently, less virulent – ​​Omicron variant spreads through the continent.

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With intensive care units in Italy’s hospitals increasingly filling with mostly uninfected COVID-19 patients, the government announced on Christmas Eve that FFP2 masks – which offer users more protection than cloth or surgical masks – must be worn on public transport, including planes, trains, ferries and subways.

Regardless, all travelers to Italy must, as of this week, be vaccinated or have recently recovered from COVID-19. FFP2s must now be worn at theatre, cinema and sporting events, indoors or out, and cannot be removed for their wearers to eat or drink.

Italy resumes an outdoor mask mandate. It had never lifted its indoor mandate—even when infections declined sharply in the summer.

On a cold Rome morning this week, 84-year-old Lilo D’Amico, wearing a wool hat and white FFP2, bought a newspaper from her neighborhood newsstand.

“(Masks) cost less money, they cost you a small sacrifice,” he said. “When you do the math, it costs a lot less than hospitalization.”

He distances himself when he sees a masked minority walking. “They see (masks) as an insult to their freedom,” said D’Amico blushing.

Spain reinstated its outdoor mask rule on Christmas Eve. By the end of last week the 14-day contagion rate had risen to 2,722 new infections per 100,000 people – up from 40 per 100,000 in mid-October – after Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was asked if the outdoor mask mandate was helping.

“Of course it is. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s the science itself because (it) is a virus that is contracted when someone exhales,” Sanchez said.

Portugal brought back the masks in late November, largely dropping the requirement when it hit its goal of vaccinating 86% of the population.

Greece has also reinstated its outdoor mask mandate, requiring FFP2 or double surgical masks on public transport and indoor public places.

This week, the Dutch government’s outbreak management team recommended a mask mandate for people over the age of 13 in busy public indoor areas such as restaurants, museums and theaters, and for spectators at indoor sporting events. Those places are currently under lockdown until at least January 14.

In France, the exterior facade mandate was partially restored in December in several cities, including Paris. The age for children to start wearing masks in public places was reduced from 11 to 6.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehmer announced last week that people must wear FFP2 masks outside if they cannot keep at least two meters (6.5 feet) apart.

In Italy, with more than 2 million people currently positive for the virus in the country of 60 million and the absence of train and bus driving to the workplace, the government also sees masks as a way to allow society to function fully .

People with booster shots or a recent second vaccine dose can now avoid quarantine after coming into contact with an infected person if they wear an FFP2 mask for 10 days.

The government has ordered shops to provide FFP masks for 75 euro cents ($0.85). In the first year of the pandemic, FFP2s cost up to 10 euros ($11.50) – whenever they could be found.

Italians wear them in a palette of colors. The father of a child who was baptized this week by Pope Francis at the Sistine Chapel wore a matching tie and jacket with pocket squares in burgundy. But the pontiff, who has practically given up a mask in public, did not wear one.

On Monday, Vatican City State mandated FFP2s in all indoor venues. The small walled independent state of the Tiber in the heart of Rome also stipulated that Vatican workers could go to work without quarantine after coming into contact with someone who was fully vaccinated or received a booster shot. Apart from doing so, comes in contact with a person who has tested positive. FFP2s.

Francis, seen wearing the FFP2, stunned shoppers in Rome on Tuesday evening, leaving a music store near the Pantheon before heading back to the Vatican.

In Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has focused on vaccination, there has never been a need for masks outside.

This month, however, the government said secondary school students should wear face coverings in class. But Education Secretary Nadim Zhawi said the rule would not apply “for a day longer than necessary”.

When the British government lifted pandemic restrictions in July 2021, turning mask-wearing from a necessity into a suggestion, mask use fell markedly.

Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Bologna-based GIMBE Foundation, which oversees health care in Italy, says Britain indicates what can happen when measures such as wearing masks are not given importance.

“The situation in the UK showed that the use of vaccination alone was not sufficient to overtake the pandemic”, he said in a video interview, even though the UK was one of the first countries to introduce vaccination.

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Aritz Parra in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, Elena Baccatoros in Athens, Greece, Jill Lawless in London, Sylvie Corbett in Paris, Mike Korder in The Hague and Frank Jordan in Berlin contributed to this report.

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