Countries are strengthening their facemask rules

Countries are strengthening their facemask rules
Experts are suggesting people to wear facemasks. Source: CNN
5 Min Read

Daily US Times: Coronavirus cases are ticking upwards in parts of Europe, the process of unlocking is paused in the United Kingdom, and the Americas are still battling to contain vast outbreaks. But as the tremors of a potential second wave of the virus are starting to be felt, some governments are reaching for a new tool that many public health experts have been touting for months: stricter facemask mandates.

Masks have become mandatory in all public spaces in recent days — outdoors and indoors — in Greece, Madrid, Portugal’s Madeira Islands, and Hong Kong.

Those moves seemingly contradict the long-held understanding that Covid-19 is more dangerous indoors. Among others, the British government used its first steps out of lockdown to encourage people to meet outdoors; beaches, parks and nature spots around the world have been inundated by guests throughout the pandemic.

But the reasoning behind the step is simpler than that: after months of mixed messaging from health authorities on facemask, governments are opting for blanket rules to help make mask-wearing a cultural norm.

Source: Getty Images

Melinda Mills, director of Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, said: “There’s been a lot of confusion about where people should wear masks, and where there’s confusion, people just disengage and don’t wear them.”

“That’s why (some countries) are moving to a broad, blanket policy,” she added.

“I’m for clarity in public messaging, and in many countries, I think it’s been a mess.”

What we know now about facemasks

The science behind airborne transmission of Covid-19 is growing, but experts from different parts of the world still agree the risk is usually higher indoors.

A group of 239 scientists wrote an open letter earlier this month to the World Health Organization, appealing for better recognition of the potential airborne transmission of coronavirus.

Source: EPA

A co-organizer of the letter and a professor of environmental health said at that time: “A lot of people crowded close together indoors where it is poorly ventilated — that is what drives the pandemic.”

But the outdoors is not coronavirus free, and universal mandates on mask-wearing are likely to reduce the spread in many kinds of settings.

On Monday, researchers reported that communities that mandated the use of facemasks in public saw an ongoing decline in the spread of Covid-19, but it takes some time.

Researchers reported in the journal Health Affairs that once mandates had been in place for about three weeks, the daily growth rate slowed by about 2% on average,

Their estimates suggest that these percentage decreases could add up. They calculate that between 230,000 and 450,000 Covid-19 cases could have been averted by May 22 by mask mandates, while other scientists agree that there can be a significant risk of outdoor transmission.

Abrar Chughtai, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, said: “There is open air, so generally the risk is slightly lower, but it’s spreading outdoors too.”

“Whenever you’re unable to maintain social distancing, you should wear a mask.”

Richard Stutt of the University of Cambridge in England, ‍added: “It’s very low risk in a setting like a park, or a big open space where there aren’t many people.” Mr Stutt modeled the impact of mask-wearing in curbing Covid-19 transmission.

“But if you’re walking down a busy high street, there’s quite a large potential for spread there — and defining exactly what constitutes a high-risk outdoors space versus a low-risk outdoor space would be very difficult to do.”

He also noted that there’s additionally the complication that if people are constantly taking their facemask off and putting it back on, then they run the risk of contaminating their hands and passing it on to other people.

That scientific knowledge is one factor driving stricter mask mandates, which are beginning to appear in countries like the UK too.

Many researchers are surprised at just how effective facemask been. According to a Kings College study published on Thursday, in April, an alarmingly low proportion of British people were wearing masks — just 19%.

But the same study found that 70% of Brits now say they have worn one in the last few weeks.

The benefits of expanded mandates are myriad, but the most significant is that it allows governments to firm up their messaging by setting a strict but simple rule: if you’re in public, you have to wear a mask.

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