Shoppers and shop assistants will be required to wear face masks as of Monday, once a partial relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions comes into effect.

People will have to wear masks while in shops or on public transport, as part of what Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci described as “the new normal”. 

Masks do not need to be medical-grade masks such as the N95 masks used by nurses and doctors, which should be reserved for healthcare professionals, Gauci said.

Authorities will be publishing guidelines with examples of masks people can wear as well as information on how to safely wear and remove later on Friday.

But unlike many other countries, those who ignore the rules will not be fined: "they would have said so," a health ministry spokesperson told Times of Malta when asked whether fines would apply. The spokesperson did not elaborate.  

The mask-wearing rules are part of a package of amended restrictions intended to help businesses safely reopen in the coming weeks. Shops will also be required to mark out queuing spots two metres apart and will have to restrict their maximum capacity of customers, among other things.   

Health Minister Chris Fearne reassured healthcare workers that the new requirements would not lead to a shortage of masks for doctors and nurses.

Malta, he said, has a stockpile of medical-grade masks to last till the end of 2020. 

Why wear a mask?

While doctors and nurses wear masks to protect themselves from possible infection, wearing masks in public settings is recommended to protect others from the wearer.

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Research into COVID-19 has suggested that many people may be infected – and therefore contagious - without even knowing it. On Thursday, Gauci revealed that one out of every five COVID-19 patients in Malta was asymptomatic, meaning they showed no symptoms of being sick.

Until now, Malta has followed World Health Organization guidelines, which state that masks are only necessary for sick people and for those in healthcare settings, such as hospitals. 

Over the past month, many countries have however steered away from those guidelines and made mask-wearing mandatory, to limit the spread of the virus by asymptomatic patients.

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While masks have been commonplace in many Asian countries throughout the pandemic, western countries have been slower to adapt.

The USA has been recommending mask use for around three weeks. In Europe, the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany are among the countries to introduce mask wearing rules.

In Germany, anyone caught not doing so faces fines of up to €5,000.

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