First and last to unmask

The first place where the masks will disappear will undoubtedly be in outdoor spaces. "In ventilated places where the safety distance can be maintained, it is likely that masks will soon cease to be mandatory," explains epidemiologist Javier del Águila. The reason is simple. The coronavirus is transmitted through the air in the form of aerosols that accumulate in the environment as invisible smoke clouds. In outdoor spaces, where the wind blows, these aerosol clouds disperse very easily. So in these environments, as long as the safety distance is maintained, the risk of contagion is negligible. This reasoning applies to streets as well as parks, beaches, forests and natural spaces.

The terraces will say goodbye before the masks that the interiors of the premises. According to the biophysicist Clara Prats, from the Computational Biology and Systems Group of the UPC (Biocomsc), the epidemiological situation will dictate how much the use of masks can be relaxed. If the indicators remain favorable, it is likely that the use of this sanitary garment will be eliminated in environments such as outdoor terraces. Another issue is the interiors of bars and restaurants. “Concentrations of people in closed and unventilated spaces are environments of risk. They are situations of super contagion, ”explains Prats. The end of the indoor mask, then, will come when the pandemic is at its lowest.

Everything indicates that indoor masks will still have a long way to go. "Taking it off in these spaces will be the last link in the de-escalation", explains Benito Almirante, head of Infectious Diseases at the Vall d'Hebron Hospital in Barcelona. The specialist predicts that to eliminate the use of masks in these spaces we need the pandemic to be at its lowest. This, in practice, will be achieved when more than 70% of the population is fully vaccinated, the epidemiological indicators are under control and, furthermore, no emerging variant appears that changes the cards on the table.

So on paper, closed spaces such as offices, supermarkets, stores and shopping centers, among others, will have to wait for the long-awaited collective immunity to say goodbye to masks. "Maintaining its use in these spaces is very important since vaccinated stripes coexist with unvaccinated stripes," says Clara Prats.

It is not clear if the residences, where workers and inmates have been fully immunized, will be among the first or the last to abandon their masks. The argument in favor is that, indeed, its population is already protected by the vaccine. But the argument against it is that it is a group that, in case of illness, is more likely to develop a serious form of Covid-19. To this, in addition, we must add the reminder that vaccines are not 100% effective. “Even in residences where everyone is vaccinated, there are cases. This shows that the virus continues to circulate, so it would be necessary to be very careful when changing measures, "says Oscar Zurriaga, vice president of the Spanish Epidemiology Society (SEE).

The use of masks in public transport may last beyond the pandemic. "Not as a restriction, but as a matter of habit," explains Javier del Águila, recalling that these are spaces where many people converge and that, in general, they do not always have good ventilation. "I think it would be nice if the use of masks in these spaces remained as a gesture of solidarity", reflects the epidemiologist.

"The end of masks in massive outdoor agglomerations will have to wait for a second phase," says Almirante. The expert refers to music festivals, as well as large sporting events and recreational events and predicts that, in the short term, the use of masks will continue to be mandatory in these environments. Especially at the entrances and exits of the enclosure, where there are usually larger crowds of people. "The only alternative to relax the use of masks in these spaces is to perform antigen tests on all attendees," says the specialist.

"It is possible that in spaces such as hospitals or health centers the use of masks also remains", comments del Águila. The epidemiologist argues that, either as a custom or as a regulation, sanitary masks will continue to be seen in healthcare settings, where sick people gather. "The masks not only work against the coronavirus, but also prevent common diseases such as colds," he recalls.

Everything indicates that discos and nightlife venues will open their doors with masks. The end of this sanitary garment in these spaces, Ortí argues, will also depend on the epidemiological situation. “If the incidence is above 50 and, furthermore, the vast majority of the young population that attends these nightlife venues is still not vaccinated, no preventive measure can be withdrawn. And - less the use of masks, "he says.

The end of masks in schools could come in two phases. First by reducing its use outdoors, in patios or in outdoor activities. And second, modulating its use in the classroom. The crux of this debate is that, unlike older people, school-age children are still not included in vaccination plans and this makes it difficult to envision the future impact of the virus in these settings. Even so, Prats reminds that mass vaccination will also indirectly protect children. So the end of masks in the adult world should also move to the classroom. "There is no point in removing the masks in open spaces and forcing children to wear them in the yard," he explains.

"Closed spaces, with a high concentration of people and where activities that emit many particles are carried out are high-risk spaces," Prats recalls. Gyms, but also rehearsal rooms for choirs and dance groups, would fall into this category. These spaces, therefore, could only return to normal when the pandemic is at its lowest. Until then, the use of masks will continue to be more than recommended.


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