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Europe tightens mask rules amid omicron variant

To hide or not to hide is an issue Italy addressed at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic with a vigorous ‘yes’. Today the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe hopes even stricter mask rules help him beat the latest wave of infections.

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

With intensive care units in Italian hospitals filling up quickly with mostly unvaccinated 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.

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A woman wearing multiple face masks walks through Retiro Park in Madrid, Spain on Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
(AP Photo / Bernat Armangue)

This is even if all passengers in Italy, as of this week, must be vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19. FFP2s must also now be worn in theaters, cinemas and sporting events, indoors or outdoors, and cannot be removed even for their wearers to eat or drink.

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

On a cold morning in Rome this week, Lillo D’Amico, 84, wore a woolen beanie and white FFP2 as he bought a newspaper from 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 pass by, he keeps his distance. “They see (the masks) an affront to their freedom,” D’Amico said with a shrug.

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

“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 breathe out,” Sanchez said.

Portugal brought back the masks at the end of November, after largely abandoning the requirement when it reached its goal of vaccinating 86% of the population.

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

This week, the Dutch government’s Outbreak Management team recommended a mask warrant for people over 13 in high-traffic indoor public spaces such as restaurants, museums and theaters, and for spectators during indoor sporting events. These places are currently closed under a lockdown until at least January 14.

In France, the outdoor mask mandate was partially reinstated in December in many cities, including Paris. The age at which children can start wearing masks in public places has been lowered from 11 to 6.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced last week that people must wear FFP2 masks outdoors if they cannot stand at least 6.5 feet apart.

In Italy, with more than 2 million people currently living with HIV in a nation of 60 million and absences from the workplace reducing train and bus journeys, the government is also seeing masks as a way to enable society to function more fully.

People who have received recent boosters or second doses of the 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 stores to make FFP masks available for 75 euro cents ($ 0.85). In the pandemic’s first year, FFP2s cost as much as 10 euros ($ 11.50) – each time they could be found.

Italians wear them in a color scheme. The father of a baby baptized this week by Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel wore one in burgundy, with a matching tie and jacket pocket. But the pontiff, who practically shunned a mask in public, was not wearing one.

Pope Francis walks with his pastoral staff among cardinals and prelates wearing FFP2 masks at the end of an Epiphany Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on Thursday, January 6, 2022.

Pope Francis walks with his pastoral staff among cardinals and prelates wearing FFP2 masks at the end of an Epiphany Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on Thursday, January 6, 2022.
(AP Photo / Gregorio Borgia)

On Monday, the Vatican City State made FFP2 mandatory in all indoor locations. The small independent state fortified across the Tiber from the heart of Rome 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 having received a booster, they carry FFP2.

Francis appeared to be wearing an FFP2 when, surprising buyers in Rome on Tuesday night, he walked out of a music store near the Pantheon before being escorted back to the Vatican.

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

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

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

Nuns wearing FFP2 masks listen to Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.

Nuns wearing FFP2 masks listen to Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.
(AP Photo / Alessandra Tarantino, file)

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

“The situation in the UK has shown that the use of vaccination alone is not enough” 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.

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