Both the Health Board (Terviseamet) and the government agree that wearing face masks in public in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus need not be made mandatory. The authorities say research on the use of masks has been controversial, and that wearing them incorrectly can do more harm than good.
They are recommended for those who have contracted the virus who have to leave home for unavoidable reasons, and those who have been in close contact with a carrier, or in enclosed, crowded public spaces like public transport.
"The Health Board and the government are of the opinion that face masks should not be mandatory in Estonia, but should remain only recommended for patients in situations where leaving home, or close contact with someone with the virus, is unavoidable," Hanna Sepp, chief specialist at the board said.
This was the case even if the coronavirus continues to spread, she went on.
"With healthy people, we only recommend the mask in very crowded places, where social distancing is not possible," Sepp said, adding this would include public transport, shopping malls and for workers whose jobs bring them into close contact with a lot of people, such as sales assistants and the police.
Sepp said that research on the effectiveness of face masks continues to yield very contradictory results: Some studies have found that masks in and of themselves have important benefits in curbing the spread of the virus, but others have found the opposite.
A qualifying factor is how to wear a face mask. Putting one on correctly, without touching the face, and the timely discarding of a disposable mask can help, but incorrect wearing or disposal can actually bring more negative effects, Sepp said.
In many of the most populous European countries, wearing face masks on public transport is mandatory, including in the U.K. Germany and Spain, while in the last two, along with Italy and Greece, wearing a mask at a shopping mall is obligatory.
Hefty fines can be levied for non-compliance in many countries; in Italy a non-mask-wearer will simply be ejected from a bus, ERR reports.
Of these countries noted above, Spain has seen a recent rise in COVID-19 cases after a June lull, as has France. The situation in Italy and Germany is more stable, though Sepp said that to what extent face masks played a role in these numbers was not clear, adding that in some countries the populace may be well informed about the correct use of masks – as well as actually acting on that information.
Ultimately, she said, face masks are a supportive measure, secondary to hand-washing and hygiene and consideration of others when coughing and sneezing. If the latter are not followed, face masks are of no benefit to anyone, she said.
Social and cultural norms and traditions in terms of distancing and physical contact in the various countries may also play a role, she said.
As for Estonia, the likelihood of the correct use of face masks being widely practised is not high enough to warrant making them mandatory, when traded off against the risk of misuse having a negative effect on rates.
Editor: Andrew Whyte