MADRID (AP) — Spain took another step Wednesday toward a sense of normality amid the pandemic by partially ending the near two-year-long obligatory use of masks indoors.
The government decree, passed Tuesday, keeps masks mandatory for visitors and staff in medical centers and nursing homes, although patients won't always be obliged to wear them.
Masks will also be mandatory on all forms of public transportation, but not in stations or airports.
It remains unclear what impact the decree will have on workplaces such as public and private company offices, banks, factories and stores, as the government is letting employers decide to keep them in use if they deem there is a health risk.
In turn, they are recommended, but not obligatory, in multitudinous gatherings, in packed areas or in the presence of vulnerable people. Schools are also exempted from having to use them.
Masks became obligatory in Spain on May 20, 2020 as the pandemic hit the country full on. But after 700 days the new measure will probably take time to be fully accepted. In Madrid and Barcelona, many workers and clients could be seen still wearing masks in cafes, stores, offices and transport areas. Weeks after ending the obligation to wear masks outdoors many people still use them.
“The mask without doubt has been one of the most identifiable measures over the past two years and it will no longer be obligatory,” Health Minister Carolina Darias said Tuesday. “They will continue to be with us as an element of protection, particularly for the most vulnerable."
With more than 92% of Spaniards over 12 years old having received at least two vaccine doses and the number of coronavirus infections and deaths dropping sharply in recent months, Spain has also eliminated mandatory home isolation for people infected with the virus who experience no symptoms or mild ones.
The ebbing of the pandemic comes as Spanish prosecutors turn their attention to possible illegalities in the purchasing of masks and other medical products by authorities in the critical first few months of the outbreak.
Two of the most prominent cases involve the Madrid region and the capital city's town hall.
State prosecutors are investigating two men who they say pocketed more than 6 million euros ($6.5 million) in commission by selling masks and other products to Madrid city hall at exorbitantly inflated prices. Prosecutors say the two bought luxury cars, watches and even a yacht with the money.
Meanwhile, Spanish and European prosecutors have also been looking into the purchase of masks by the Madrid regional government in a deal brokered by the brother of regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso for a substantial commission.
In both cases, authorities say they acted in good faith during a national emergency and that it was extremely difficult to obtain these products at the beginning of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, analyzing the books of Spain's major cities and some major institutions during the first three months of the pandemic, Spain's Court of Auditors has found that there were often major exorbitant differences in the prices paid for masks and other products.
Ciarán Giles, The Associated Press