Germany Toughens Mask Rules in Hopes of Slowing Virus Spread

(Bloomberg) -- Germany has ratcheted up rules for wearing face masks, becoming the first major European country to require medical-grade protection in shops and public transit in hopes of controlling faster-spreading strains of the coronavirus.

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the measures alongside new curbs late Tuesday, mandating that people wear surgical masks or higher-specification N95 or FFP-2 devices rather than simply donning cloth face coverings. The move comes as the country reports record Covid deaths despite an easing of new infections, and echoes efforts in some Asian countries that have more successfully limited Covid’s spread.

Although medical-grade masks are often more expensive and may be harder to source, German officials say there is enough supply for both the public and health workers, and are making financial aid available to ensure people can access them.

“When case numbers get this high, you really need to wear a mask, and the FFP-2 version is the highest quality,” said Berthold Pohl, a pharmacist in Munich who’s seen a jump in shoppers this week. The surrounding state of Bavaria this week imposed even stricter rules than the rest of the country, requiring those masks, with ordinary surgical ones not an option.

Mask Rules

Until now, Western countries have been loath to raise the stakes in mask mandates. It’s often been hard enough to get large portions of the population to wear face coverings at all.

Last spring, there were so few medical-grade masks available that most governments -- after concluding that any covering is better than nothing -- simply urged people to put on a cloth mask while indoors and in crowded places. The U.S. currently advises people against wearing medical-grade or surgical masks.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Wednesday there is currently no indication that there will be production bottlenecks for FFP-2 masks or similar equipment. The government is in the process of sending out vouchers for 12 of the masks to 34.1 million citizens, he added.

“As things stand, I am optimistic that there’ll be enough masks available,” Spahn said at a news conference in Berlin. “But without doubt there could be temporary shortages at the regional or local level if everyone decides to buy them at the same time. Even the best distribution and logistics structures can’t cope with that.”

A growing body of studies suggests that cloth masks do indeed help slow the spread of Covid, though it’s hard to say exactly how much since people wear such a wide variety of coverings and often leave their noses out in the open.

Medical-grade masks like FFP-2, by contrast, are subject to regulatory requirements. Used correctly, they form a seal around a person’s face, forcing air to pass through layers of fine filtering and helping capture the vast majority of airborne particles that are too small to be seen.

“The better the quality of mask you can wear, the more effective that will be at stopping transmission, but you need to put affordability and accessibility into that as well,” said Jimmy Whitworth, a public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Germany’s rules are touching off discussion in the U.K. about ramping up mask requirements, Whitworth added. Several British retailers said this month that they’d tighten enforcement of previously imposed in-store requirements.

2 Euros Apiece

By Tuesday afternoon in Munich, people appeared to be quickly adapting to the new rules. Outside Pohl’s pharmacy, on a bustling stretch between a closed lederhosen-and-dirndl tailor and a hospital, cafes had put out signs showing the prices of coffee, sandwiches -- and now FFP-2 masks, which are going for about 2 euros ($2.43) apiece.

Most people in a nearby metro station were already donning the beaked, white masks. Gone, for the most part, were the colorful novelty and homemade versions that have been ubiquitous for months.

At a popular outdoor market, butcher Stefan Wehner said the new rules may be too little, too late. Politicians should have acted more aggressively to curb the virus earlier, he said.

“If people had been smarter the last 10, 12 months, we wouldn’t be here,” he said, rearranging some meat in his display case. “Will these mask rules now be effective? That’s the question.”

(Updates with German health minister in seventh, eighth paragraphs)