Coronavirus: a guide to countries relaxing rules on masks

Some countries have dropped mandatory masks with varying degrees of success, while others are now imposing stricter rules

Wearing face masks has been central to attempts to control the coronavirus pandemic in dozens of countries.

It makes the move by Israel to relax restrictions on wearing face coverings on Sunday all the more significant, as it suggests life could move closer to normal as vaccination programmes are introduced around the world.

Almost five million people in Israel, or 55 per cent of the population, are fully vaccinated with both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

But in many other countries, there are indications that face coverings may remain. In UAE, they are mandatory in all public areas.

Perhaps we’ve spent too little time looking at what China has been doing. They’ve managed to break this virus, and face masks seem to have been a component in doing that

Prof John Oxford, University of London

Public Health England’s head of immunisation, Dr Mary Ramsay, said recently that masks and social distancing might be needed for “a few years” until the pandemic is controlled globally.

While there has been controversy over their effectiveness, face masks are believed to limit the chances of transmitting or catching the coronavirus, and may reduce the severity of infections.

The World Health Organisation describes masks as “a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives”, although it is not regarded as a substitute for measures such as social distancing and regularly washing hands.

Prof John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at the University of London, said while data on masks has been “a bit up and down”, they appeared to have helped Asian nations in particular control the spread of the virus.

The Deira side of Dubai Creek with signs showing that masks are mandatory. The UAE has implemented strict measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. Antonie Robertson / The National
Signs in Deira, Dubai reminder people that masks are mandatory in all public places. Antonie Robertson / The National

“Perhaps we’ve spent too little time looking at what China has been doing,” Prof Oxford said.

“They’ve managed to break this virus and face masks seem to have been a component in doing that.”

His view was that breathing out the virus, even without coughing or sneezing, could play a major role in transmission and masks could reduce this risk of infection.

Here The National looks at several nations that have lifted mask restrictions, and whether those decisions have held.

Israel

Pedestrians cross a street as Israel rescinds the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors in the latest return to relative normality. REUTERS / Amir Cohen
Pedestrians cross a street as Israel rescinds the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors in the latest return to relative normality. Reuters / Amir Cohen

Israel ended obligatory mask wearing outside on Sunday, in a major turning point after a year in which face coverings were required outdoors for anyone not exercising.

Masks remain mandatory in indoor public places.

A cut in infection rates brought about by Israel’s successful vaccination programme has made the easing of mask wearing possible, said the country’s Health Minister, Yuli Edelstein.

More than four fifths of people in Israel aged over 16 have had two vaccine doses and weekly death rates have dropped to double figures, a trend partly credited to the inoculation programme.

New Zealand

New Zealand has almost eliminated coronavirus cases in the country and lifted some mask-wearing requirements last year.

In September, the country dropped mandatory masks on public transport, except on aeroplanes, although they were still required on public transport in the capital, Auckland.

But in mid-February, the government reintroduced mask-wearing on public transport nationwide, even for areas in the lowest coronavirus alert levels.

United States

US President Joe Biden has called for mask wearing mandates to be reintroduced everywhere in America. REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque
US President Joe Biden has called for mask wearing laws to be reintroduced everywhere in America. Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

Some US states that formerly mandated mask wearing lifted restrictions last month, and now there are a reported 16 that do not have statewide rules requiring them to be worn.

All of these have Republican governors, and the Democratic US President, Joe Biden, has called for mask mandates to be reintroduced.

Last week, a study was published looking at data from 50 US states in 2020. It found that 14 out of 15 that did not require masks at the time had high Covid-19 rates.

The Boston University research also identified that states with high rates of mask wearing had low case rates.

Czech Republic

This central European nation coped well early on in the pandemic, leading the government to lift a requirement to wear masks in public in May 2020, two months after its introduction.

But as case numbers began to rise, in September the requirement was reintroduced on public transport and in hospitals, and mask-wearing rules were tightened later that month and in October.

Then, at the end of February this year, the country said that simple cloth masks were inadequate, and brought in a requirement for respirator masks or two surgical masks to be worn in public.

As their vaccine introduction has progressed, officials have said it may be possible to lift the rules on wearing masks outside by the summer.

Mask-wearing in India is compulsory. EPA / JAGADEESH NV
Mask-wearing in India is compulsory. EPA / Jagadeesh NV

Spain

While some countries have been moving away from masks, at the end of March Spain introduced tough rules as Covid-19 cases showed signs of increasing again.

Under the laws, masks must be worn outside, including beaches, with the requirement lifted only if people are staying in one place or swimming.

The rules, which sparked concern within the country’s tourist industry, also require people to wear masks when sitting outside in restaurants, except when they are eating.

India

Mask-wearing became compulsory in April last year for nearly 300 million of India's 1.3 billion citizens, and was later extended in several states over the summer of 2020.

But as the country began a vaccination drive at the start of 2021, some areas relaxed their regulations on masks, and allowed religious festivals and election rallies.

Now, weekly case numbers are soaring to record levels and restrictions are being tightened.

The country recently introduced a fine of 500 rupees ($6.70) for not wearing a mask on trains or in stations, while in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a 1,000 rupee penalty for not wearing a mask was brought in on Sunday, along with a statewide lockdown.

The fine increases to 10,000 rupees for a second offence.

Updated: April 19, 2021 01:33 PM

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