Spanish town parties like it’s 2019… and it’s all in the name of science

Clinical studies never looked so good: for a few hours on Thursday in a beach town near Barcelona some 400 people said adios to pandemic distancing and partied like it was 2019 -- all in the name of science.

Spanish town parties like it's 2019... and it's all in the name of science
People gather at a terrace bar during a trial clinical study for a possible reopening of nightlife in Sitges, near Barcelona. Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Masks were the only visible sign of the times as participants were given free reign to bar hop, dance and drink indoors and outdoors at cafes and clubs along a 400 metre stretch of street in the town of Sitges.

The aim of the study: to test whether clubs can reopen without posing a threat of contagion.

Besides agreeing to wear either FFP2 or surgical masks, revellers were required to present a negative antigen test taken a few hours prior to the

“When I saw there was finally the chance to go and party I didn’t think twice,” happy participant Nuria Miralpeix, 38, told AFPTV. “The last time I went out was in March 2020. Since then I’ve been shut in and now I feel like a student who’s dying to party on a Thursday!” added the financial director, smiling.

Though the feeling of freedom only lasts a few hours, Edgar, 37, said one must “take advantage.”

The street in Sitges hosting the study is known historically for its nightlife. Parties here provided a safe space for homosexuals when they were persecuted under the Franco dictatorship from 1939 until 1975.

Organisers requested that participants respect social distancing for five days after the study to eliminate the risk of contamination.

Then another antigen test will reveal whether the party was responsible for any new cases. Clubs and bars in Catalonia were barely able to open for one month between last spring’s confinements and new measures imposed in July.

“This clinical study should open the way for the return of nightlife — the only sector that remains completely shut down,” regional health official Marc
Armengol said.

Sponsored by the city and Catalonian health officials, the experiment follows two other studies conducted during concerts in Barcelona.

In December a team of researchers carried out a pilot project that brought together 500 previously-tested revellers who were able to dance without social distancing — but with masks.

Days later, none of the participants had contracted Covid-19. At the end of March another test concert brought together some 5,000 people with organisers saying there was “no sign” of contagion afterwards.

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When will Spain scrap face masks in hospitals and pharmacies?

Despite other Covid-19 restrictions being lifted long ago, it is still mandatory to wear a face mask in Spanish hospitals, pharmacies and other health centres. So is this rule set to change anytime soon? Many health experts think it should.

When will Spain scrap face masks in hospitals and pharmacies?

Spanish society has taken mask wearing quite seriously during the Covid-19 pandemic, but face coverings haven’t been compulsory in most indoor public settings since April 20th 2022.

Mandatory mask wearing on public transport, at opticians and in hearing centers also ended in February 2023.

However, wearing a mask is still necessary in medical settings – specifically in hospitals, other health-related centres and pharmacies.

This is the last Covid measure still in place in Spain more than three yars since the pandemic began.

Admittedly, while mask wearing in hospital settings is still strictly enforced, in many pharmacies around Spain this rule has become a little more lax.

But how much longer will this Covid rule continue?

READ ALSO: Spain announces end of public transport face mask rule

Ministry of Health

The government are remaining tightlipped. Spain’s Ministry of Health, when asked by El Mundo newspaper how long masks will be mandatory in medical settings, gave a vague non-comital response: “In Spain, the position is that we should try to use masks in healthcare centres and services as a general rule, regardless of whether there is Covid or not, and from there exceptions can be made or particular situations can be assessed.”

It’s hardly a definitive answer. According to the official government BOE that eliminated masks on public transport (as well as opticians) in February, which you can find here, the justification for keeping them in medical settings was: “The mandatory use of masks is maintained in healthcare centres and services, and pharmacies, since these are areas where there may be a greater concentration of vulnerable people and where the risk of serious illness is greater and, what is more, where the probability of transmission is higher, since they are places where there may be a greater number of people with transmissible respiratory infections, in addition to the COVID-19.”

Expert opinion

Many medical experts are now calling for the lifting of this last pandemic measure and a return to pre-pandemic normality.

The Spanish Society of Immunology certainly believes so. “We have been wearing masks when there has been a lot of circulation of viruses, and now that it has stopped circulating, I think the removal of the masks could be considered,” Marcos López Hoyos, the society’s president, said in an interview with Spanish news outlet Antena3.

Hoyos pointed to the fact that society now has vaccine immunity and medicines that we did not have at the beginning of the pandemic. That said, he also insisted that we must “be aware that at a given moment you can go back, at a time of an important resurgence.”

The Spanish Society of Immunology now believes that Covid-19 should be managed like any other respiratory virus “because the health situation is no longer so emergency,” and recommends that mask use goes back to the pre-pandemic norm, that is, wearing them only in very specific situations.

Experts believe mask wearing should still be mandatory in ICUs and during surgery, but not in all hospital settings necessarily, Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

“Everyone puts on a mask when they enter an ICU, or when they enter a premature unit, or when they are in an operating room, or in a surgical area,” virologist Raúl Ortiz de Lejarazu explained. 

“Masks have played an important role when the incidence of the virus was very high; but when it is very low, the use of masks has practically no importance because it is something that is not worn continuously and throughout the day we will have the opportunity, at home or elsewhere, to get infected,” he added.

The experts are not in complete consensus, however, and some suggest caution and waiting for direction from global bodies before removing medical mask mandates. Amós García, an epidemiologist and member of the Permanent Group for Europe of the World Health Organization (WHO), told Antena3 that “it would be appropriate to be cautious and wait for the WHO to rule on the matter.”

Óscar Zurriaga, president of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology (SEE), has defended maintaining the mask measures on the grounds of protecting vulnerable patients: “Regardless of Covid, the maintenance of masks is an additional measure against this virus and other respiratory viruses, which means that for vulnerable people this measure can be favourable, especially considering that it is an area in which people with all kinds of vulnerability go and in which different pathogens flourish,” he told El Mundo.

Mask order

Despite many experts calling for the end of mask use in hospitals and pharmacies, the vague statements of the Health Ministry, and the lifting off mask mandates in other settings if Spain’s Ministry of Finance is anything to go by, we might be wearing masks for a while longer.

The Ministry recently spent around €50,000 to buy 2 million surgical masks for its staff, despite them not being mandatory anymore, which would suggest the government is erring on the side of caution and unlikely to lift mask requirements in medical centres.

Spain was the last country in the EU to lift the indoor mask requirement, and in some European countries, most recently Portugal, masks have also been dropped in health centres.

According to recent figures from the Health Ministry, the percentage of ICU beds in Spain occupied by patients with Covid-19 is less than 2 percent (1.31 percent), and general hospital beds 1.73 percent. The cumulative incidence for the last 14 days in people over 60 years of age was 70.45.