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France may make masks mandatory in public indoor spaces

The French government is seriously considering making masks mandatory in all public enclosed spaces, as several other European countries have already introduced the measure. We explain the current situation.

14 July 2020
By Connexion journalist

On Sunday (July 12), Prime Minister Jean Castex said that “the question of developing the use and wearing of masks is being studied”, and would likely firstly apply to indoor spaces as a “priority”, if the measure is imposed.

Currently, masks are not mandatory in indoors spaces in France. They are only mandatory on public transport. In public spaces and enclosed areas in which physical distancing is impossible - such as small shops or crowded markets - wearing a mask is strongly recommended.

Health minister Olivier Véran added: “Will a warm recommendation [to wear a mask] become an obligation tomorrow? This is what we are discussing.”

A coronavirus victims' association and health professionals have even called on the country's highest administrative court, Le Conseil d'Etat, to force the State to make masks mandatory in public spaces.

Lawyer Fabrice Di Vizio, representing victim association l’Association Victimes Coronavirus Covid-19 France and the health professionals collective C19, said: "After a superhuman effort by the health system, it is urgent to take all possible preventative measures to avoid a second wave.

"If the government does not wish to make this decision, if it will not remember anything about the crisis that we have just lived through, we today call on the Conseil d'Etat to force it to."

Now, news service FranceInfo has laid out the current situation in France, collating some of the most recent recommendations and evidence. We explain and translate.

Why now?

The debate comes as doctors in France call for masks to be made mandatory and pressure grows for the government to act.

An open letter signed by 14 doctors, and published in Le Parisien on Saturday July 11, said: “Wearing a mask is an important condition to limit the spread of the virus...Wearing a mask is not only to protect yourself, but also to prevent the spread of the virus; as long as everyone wears it!”

Similarly, the high-profile doctor, Dr Jacques Battistoni, president of medical union MG France, also reiterated his union’s calls for mandatory masks this week.

Read more: Doctors in France call for face masks in indoor public areas
Read more: Leading French doctor joins call for mandatory indoor masks

Another open letter by health professionals in newspaper Libération on Sunday also sought to “alert health authorities on the urgency of introducing obligatory mask-wearing” in enclosed spaces. They added that the “rule of distancing by more than a metre in an enclosed space is not enough, it makes people think that they are protected”.

On Sunday, Mr Castex replied to a question about an open-air concert attended by 5,000 people that had taken place in Nice (gatherings of under 5,000 people are allowed in open spaces). He said: “Wearing a mask is, you know, one of the ways of fighting, and preventing the spread of, the epidemic. I confirm to you that the question of developing the use and wearing of masks is being studied.”

What do experts say about wearing a mask indoors?

As well as the open letters from doctors, other medical experts have spoken in support of wearing masks.

Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, president of the government council Le Conseil Scientifique, wrote in an article in Libération: “Confined spaces with big crowds are centres of contamination.” Similarly, epidemiologist Pascal Crépey has said that “confined spaces present a larger risk factor.”

An as early as April 22, medical authority l'Académie de Médecine came out in favour of wearing masks. In a press release, it said: “In the absence of a vaccine and effective drugs against SARS-Cov-2, the only way of fighting is to stop the spread of the virus from person to person.”

Recent studies suggest that mask-wearing could be one of the most effective means of stopping the spread.

On July 6, an international group of 239 researchers wrote to health authorities reminding them of the virus’ ability to spread in the air over a distance of two metres, if sneezed or coughed.

The letter said: “The spread of SARS-Cov-2 through the air is not universally accepted, but our collective opinion is that there is enough of a reason to apply the principle of caution.”

Would the measure only apply to enclosed, indoor areas?

Mr Castex has so far said that any measures would concern “as a priority, all enclosed spaces”.

Health minister Mr Véran has said: “The question concerns all enclosed areas in which people are gathered and are not able to respect the distance of at least one metre [between each other].

Today, we recommend that all people who are unlikely to be able to respect the distance, and therefore will expose themselves to the spread of the virus, should wear a mask.”

The question of whether the government could - or would - impose mandatory mask-wearing in all public spaces - whether crowded, indoors, or outdoors - is unclear.

Already, the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi - himself a long-time advocate of mask-wearing everywhere - has said: “I demand that the government decides that mask-wearing be obligatory, even in outdoor spaces.”

And Jean-François Mattéi, president of the administrative council at medical academy l’Académie Nationale de Médecine and the former health minister from 2002 to 2004, said: “We will not retract [our recommendation] to make mask-wearing obligatory in public.

“Only one in five people is currently wearing a mask in the supermarket...and I think it’s stupid and dangerous. We can only take control of the epidemic if masks are worn by everyone in public.”


Who has the authority to make masks mandatory?

The state of health emergency in France ended at midnight on July 10, but the government still retains the power to introduce certain measures by decree if necessary, until October 30.

Local authorities would then be required to enact the decision if it were to be decided by the State.

At the local level, mayors also have the right to impose mask-wearing in their commune or area, especially at sites or events under their jurisdiction. For example, Mr Estrosi in Nice has already announced that wearing a mask will be mandatory for all major events organised by the council in the area.

Read more: French state of health emergency: What changes as it ends?

What are other European countries doing about mandatory masks?

The rules vary.

In Belgium, it is now mandatory to wear a mask in most enclosed spaces, such as shops, cinemas and museums.

In Germany, wearing a mask is required in shops and on public transport.

In Ireland, it is mandatory on public transport, in shops, and in restaurants.

In Portugal, protective equipment such as masks and visors are mandatory in areas that do not allow people to maintain a distance of at least one metre between people, especially in enclosed, indoor spaces.

In Croatia, wearing a mask is mandatory in most enclosed public spaces, including in shops - for both staff and customers - and also for staff in bars, restaurants, and anywhere else that requires close contact with clients.

In Catalonia, northern Spain, wearing a mask is mandatory in all public spaces, both outdoors and indoors, even where a distance of 1.5 metres between people is possible. The only exceptions are for children aged under six, and for people practising sports. Those not complying risk a fine of €100.

In the UK, the government has just announced that masks will be compulsory in all shops in England, with fines of up to £100 (€120) for those who do not comply. Masks have been compulsory on public transport in England since June 15. In Scotland, masks are already compulsory in shops.

They are not mandatory in Wales or Northern Ireland, but recommended. This may change in time.

Related stories

Doctors in France call for face masks in indoor public areas

Top doctor: French are 'abandoning' Covid-19 protections

Q&A: When do I need to wear a mask?

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