Italy eyes mandate for masks outdoors as virus rebounds

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A woman is about to wear a face mask to stop the spread of COVID-19, in Rome, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Italy’s health minister said that the government is examining a proposal to make masks mandatory outdoors as the country enters a difficult phase of living alongside COVID-19 with the number of infections growing steadily for the last nine weeks. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (AP) โ€” Italy was expected to order a nationwide outdoor mask mandate Wednesday with fines of up to 1,000 euros ($1,163) for violators, as the European country where COVID-19 first hit scrambles to keep rebounding infections from spiralling out of control.

The government was taking the measure even though Italy’s overall per capita infection rate is currently among the lowest in Europe. But public health authorities have warned that a steady, nine-week rise in infections nationwide demands new measures to counter it.

“We believe this is an appropriate measure to help contain the virus and send a message to the country that we need to raise the attention threshold,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told parliament Tuesday in explaining the planned requirement. “(Facemasks) are the first weapon we have to contain the virus.”

The Cabinet meeting to approve the decree came on the same day that Italy added 3,678 new infections and 31 victims to its official coronavirus toll, the highest increase in new cases since the peak of the outbreak in April. Both hard-hit Lombardy and southern Campania added more than 500 cases apiece.

Italy now has over 36,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the second-highest number in Europe after Britain.

Even though the World Health Organization doesn’t specifically recommend masks outdoors for the general population, the trend has taken off in Italy, particularly as new clusters have been identified in southern regions that largely escaped Italy’s first wave of infection.

The new government decree was to be contained in a measure to extend the state of emergency until Jan. 31, though by Wednesday evening it still hadn’t been published by the government, suggesting a last-minute glitch.

It would require residents to have masks on them at all times outdoors and wear them if there’s a risk they will run into anyone outside their immediate family, said the deputy health secretary, Pierpaolo Sileri.

Exceptions include for outdoor sporting activities, children under 6 and for people with health conditions that preclude wearing masks.

Fines ranging from 400 to 1,000 euros ($463 to $1,163) are foreseen for violations, Italian news agency ANSA said.

Italy thus is joining Spain, Turkey, North Macedonia, India and a handful of other Asian countries in imposing a nationwide, outdoor mask mandate. Spain has had such a requirement in place since mid-May and Turkey since last month.

Elsewhere in Europe, such outdoor mandates are in effect in some hot spot cities, such as Paris, Brussels and Pristina, Kosovo. In many Asian countries, social pressure to wear masks outdoors has made binding government decrees unnecessary, though the Australian state of Victoria has had one in place for weeks now.

Italy has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe, at 46.5 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. By contrast, the Czech Republic counts 327 per 100,000 while Spain has 302 infections, France 248 and Belgium 233 per 100,000.

While Paris and Brussels have closured bars to cope with the rising infections and Britain has capped pub hours, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte has said that Italy wouldn’t impose any curfews or close bars.

“If we want to put the country in the condition to relaunch economically, we have to win the health care battle,” Speranza said.

The Vatican, which followed Italy’s strict lockdown in spring and summer, also imposed an outdoor mask mandate this week in the tiny city state in the center of Rome. Pope Francis, however, didn’t wear a mask during his indoor general audience Wednesday, even as he greeted well-wishers and shook their hands.

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