Italians seem to think face masks make them invincible

Emma Cooke
·6-min read
'It’s difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of an unrelenting devotion to mask-wearing above all else, especially outdoors' - getty
'It’s difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of an unrelenting devotion to mask-wearing above all else, especially outdoors' - getty

Ischia currently, to my knowledge, has no active Covid cases, which made my trip there all the more enticing. Not that Ischia, one of the largest islands off the Gulf of Naples, and a favourite with Italy’s domestic tourists, needs any help being enticing. 

Over the course of a week, my partner and I ensconced ourselves in one of the island’s many spa hotels, and set about testing the limit of how many spritzes and pizzas the human body can take. 

Our first foray abroad since the March lockdown, our time on the island was undoubtedly glorious – but also offered a glimpse into a different kind of Covid culture.

In the UK, I’d thought mask wearing was pretty prevalent. Coming out of Naples airport, I realised I’d been woefully naive. Grateful to whip my mask off after a long and hot journey wearing it, I looked around to see that few were doing the same, despite being in the fresh air. 

In Italy mask wearing outside is mandatory when “in proximity of locations and premises that are open to the public, as well as in public spaces whose physical characteristics may facilitate the formation of gatherings of both spontaneous and/or occasional nature.” This only applies between the hours of 6pm and 6am – coronavirus sleeps during the daytime, you see – so we should have been in the clear. Playing it safe, I put my mask back on – at least until out of sight of the airport. But as we moved away from the crowds, I was surprised to see few besides us removing their masks, even in the 30C heat.

To be clear, I’m not an avid anti-masker. They’re not comfortable, but I’m perfectly happy to follow rules if they’ll help people stay safe. Besides, wearing a mask is a cheap price to pay for a holiday on Italy’s beautiful coast. But it’s difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of an unrelenting devotion to mask-wearing above all else, especially outside, when an array of evidence shows the risk of catching Covid there is minimal. 

Ischia is well worth donning a sweaty mask for - getty
Ischia is well worth donning a sweaty mask for - getty

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) masks may help prevent the spread of Covid, particularly when people are in close proximity to each other and indoors. All well and good. The issue, for me, is when strict mask wearing becomes a panacea for the virus – wear one at all times, and who needs to bother with any other preventions.

This worry came into force in Italy, where masks were everywhere but working sanitiser stations were, unfortunately, not. Walking through the airport, I fruitlessly waved my hand under four automatic sanitising dispensers, with no results. Outside our hotel, again, the automatic machine was broken and remained so throughout our holiday. Hand sanitiser stations, it seemed, were not maintained with anywhere near the same zeal as they are in the UK. 

Neither was social distancing. Queues for ferries and buses were cramped affairs, despite ample space. One story stands out: a taxi boat ride saw us don masks to be whizzed through the open air with plenty of space between us and the driver. Only to be delivered to a beach humming with people, where I was shoulder barged by at least two intent on securing a prime spot in the waning sunlight. 

None of this would bother me – we had made the choice to travel abroad, so any risks were on our own heads – if there didn’t seem such a gaping double standard in regards to masks.

At one point, my partner and I sat on an entirely empty bus, waiting for the driver to arrive. The inferno-like temperature inside covered my face with a layer of sweat, causing my mask to slip down a few scant centimetres as I looked at my phone. Barely a second later, an officious knock on the window had me looking up to see an irate passer-by gesturing furiously at me to correct it. 

Perhaps he was worried that I, a clear foreigner, was bringing the virus from abroad over to Covid-free Ischia. But a few days later, we witnessed a local woman try to board another near empty bus, maskless. The result was instantaneous. The bus driver shouted at her to remove herself, pronto, with the few other passengers supporting him. Her attempts to explain, in Italian, that she couldn’t wear a mask for health reasons fell on deaf ears and she was forced out, left, clearly distressed, on the side of the road as we pulled away. 

Surely there’s some room for nuance in all this? Maybe someone isn’t the most religious of mask-wearers, but if they’re making up for it with hand washing and keeping their distance, who am I to judge? 

Follow the rules, but there's little evidence to suggest living in a mask is that helpful - getty
Follow the rules, but there's little evidence to suggest living in a mask is that helpful - getty

Masks are not a catch-all protection. Opinions on their effectiveness are conflicted, and the World Health Organization (WHO) only recommends the use of medical masks for sick people, those with Covid-19 symptoms, health workers or those in vulnerable groups. Italy’s low infection rate within Europe is to be applauded, but other countries with high rates of mask-wearing aren’t faring so well, backing up the idea that masks aren’t the be all and end all. I’d wager it’s Italy’s efficient Covid-testing at airports and zealous temperature checking, over the mask-wearing at all times, that stands them in such good stead. 

A friend in Dubai, where face masks are mandatory in public, recently bemoaned a similar problem. 

“Wearing a mask outside has been mandatory here since spring, but over the last couple of weeks the cases have risen from around 200 a day to almost 1,000 a day.” Mask wearing hasn’t changed, but, “everyone seems to have given up completely on social distancing, and people, in general, are sanitising less.”

“I don’t think they’re spraying down shopping carts and baskets anymore either.” As for bars and restaurants? “Basically a free-for-all. But everyone’s still crazy about wearing masks 24/7.”

By all means, wear your mask – even when you’re not required to, if you so desire. It’s no business of mine. But a mask is only one piece of the Covid-19 spread-slowing puzzle.

So, before you get sanctimonious about someone’s perceived shoddy mask wearing, remember, if we’re at the same beach or restaurant, we’re all in the bad lads club together. Neither of us are dutifully waiting out the end of the pandemic from behind closed doors and Covid one-upmanship is never a good look.