Europe banking on even stricter mask rules to repel winter COVID surge

ROME (AP) — To mask or not to mask is a question Italy settled at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak with a resounding “yes.” Now Europe’s former epicenter of the pandemic is hoping even tougher mask rules will help it beat the latest wave of infection.

Other countries are taking similar action as the more transmissible – but apparently less virulent – ​​omicron variant spreads across the continent.

As Italian hospital intensive care units quickly fill with mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, the government announced on Christmas Eve that FFP2 masks – which offer users more protection than cloth masks or surgical – must be worn on public transport, including planes, trains, ferries and subways.

This is even though all passengers in Italy, starting this week, must be vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19. FFP2s must also now be worn in theatres, cinemas and sporting events, indoors or outdoors, and cannot be removed even so their wearers can eat or drink.

Italy has reintroduced an outdoor mask mandate. He had never lifted his domestic mandate – even when infections fell sharply in the summer.

On a cold morning in Rome this week, Lillo D’Amico, 84, sported a woolen cap and a white FFP2 as he bought a newspaper at his neighborhood newsstand.

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

When he sees someone from the unmasked minority passing by, he keeps his distance. “They see (the masks) as an affront to their freedom,” D’Amico said with a shrug.

Spain reinstated its outdoor mask rule on Christmas Eve. After the 14-day contagion rate soared to 2,722 new infections per 100,000 people at the end of last week – from 40 per 100,000 in mid-October – Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was asked if the mandate of the outer mask helped.

“Of course it is. It’s not me saying it. It’s science itself saying it because (it’s) a virus that contracts when you exhale,” Sanchez said. .

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

Greece has also reinstated its outdoor mask mandate, while requiring an FFP2 or double surgical mask on public transport and in indoor public spaces.

This week, the Dutch government’s epidemic management team recommended a mask mandate for people over the age of 13 in busy public indoor spaces such as restaurants, museums and theaters, and for spectators during indoor sporting events. These locations are currently closed under lockdown until at least Friday, January 14.

In France, the obligation of the external mask was partially restored in December in many cities, including Paris. The age at which children must start wearing masks in public places has been lowered from 11 to 6 years old.

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

In Italy, with more than 2 million people currently positive for the virus in a country of 60 million people and absences from the workplace reducing train and bus journeys, the government is also considering masks as a means to enable society to function more fully.

People who have received boosters or recent doses of the second vaccine 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 make FFP masks available for 75 euro cents (85 US cents). 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 baby baptized this week by Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel wore one in burgundy, with a matching tie and pocket square. But the pontiff, who practically avoided the mask in public, was without a mask.

On Monday, the Vatican City State mandated FFP2s in all indoor locations. The small fortified independent state across the Tiber from the heart of Rome has also stipulated that Vatican employees can go to work without quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive if, in addition to being completely vaccinated or have received a booster, they carry FFP2.

Francis appeared to be wearing an FFP2 when, surprising shoppers in Rome on Tuesday night, he emerged from a music store near the Pantheon before being taken back to the Vatican.

In Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has focused on vaccinations, masks have never been required outdoors.

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

When the UK government lifted pandemic restrictions in July 2021, turning mask-wearing from a requirement to a suggestion, mask use dropped markedly.

Nino Cartabellotta, chairman of the Bologna-based GIMBE foundation, which monitors health care in Italy, says Britain is highlighting what can happen when measures such as mask-wearing are not valued.

“The situation in the UK has shown that the use of vaccination alone is not sufficient” to get ahead of the pandemic, even though Britain was one of the first countries to start vaccination, he said. he said in a video interview.