After Italy, Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to feel the full, crushing weight of the coronavirus pandemic, and is currently approaching 30,000 deaths. Now, as governments around the continent lift their lockdown restrictions, Spain has also become a reference point for its stringent policy on the use of face masks: starting Thursday, they are mandatory for nearly everyone, and just about everywhere.
The new policy excludes children under the age of six, but applies to everyone else, Spanish daily El País reports. That means that approximately 45 million Spaniards are now required to cover their mouths and noses whenever they're in public spaces — indoors or outdoors — where maintaining a distance of two meters isn't possible.
So far it's not clear how the requirements will be enforced, or what precisely the sanctions will be for people who ignore the rule. What is clear is that Spain is going all in on face masks as a necessary tool to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The government order also highlights a shift in both the science and the way people around the world feel about face masks, which have been something of a "moving target" since the pandemic began. Not only has there been cultural resistance, in some cases, to face coverings, but they've also been the subject of conflicting national and international medical guidelines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advises people to wear a mask only if they are coughing or sneezing or taking care of someone with the virus. But a report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends the use of medical face masks in busy and closed spaces even for people without symptoms. So should we wear them or not? Here's what they're saying around the world:
France flip-flop: Initially following the WHO advice, France began the pandemic by recommending people wear a mask only if they were sick or work in the medical sector. But in April, the country shifted its position abruptly, encouraging all citizens to wear masks in public, Le Monde reports. The government also announced the manufacture of "alternative" masks for the public would expand and that France had ordered 2 billion masks from China. For now the use of face masks isn't compulsory, though that could change after May 11, when the country starts to loosen its lockdown measures.
U.S. culture clash: The rules in the United States vary from state to state — and store to store, and has become politically charged in a nation sometimes obsessed with the notion of individual freedom. As USA Today reports, video was captured of a recent showdown at a Costco retailer between an employee who forced out a shopper refusing to wear a mask, as per store rules. The shopper retorted: "I woke up this morning in a free country."
Singapore reversal: Similarly, healthy Singaporians were initially instructed to stay clear of masks, but as the death toll crossed the 1,000 mark in early April, authorities flipped and have since fined hundreds of people for not wearing masks in public, reports daily The Straits Times.
South Korea all-in: In South Korea, where face masks were seen as a key part of the national strategy to curb the spread, the government intervened in early February to solve the mask shortage, buying up half of all KF-94 masks (the equivalent of the American N95) from the nation's 130 or so manufacturers and sold them at discount to 23,000 pharmacies, reports South Korean Broadcaster TBS.
Sweden says Nej: Swedish health authorities have kept a straight line from the start: No, masks don't protect healthy people. Rather, according to state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, they are likely to increase the risk of spread as the virus leaks and accumulates on the inside of the mask, to then be transferred to the hands whenever put on or taken off, reports Swedish National Television.
Czech model: The Czech Republic made it compulsory early on to wear a mask or other mouth and nose-covering apparel when in public, with fines of up to 10.000CZK (363 euros). Despite the global shortage, Czechs have mobilized to sew and distribute homemade masks, in a movement spearheaded by celebrities on social media. A government-sponsored video in English, intended mainly to inspire other countries, explains that it is not so much about face masks protecting the ones who wear them, but everyone else – with a catchword "my mask protects you, your mask protects me."