Medical groups, some cities ‘disturbed’ by end of masking rules, others welcome end of pandemic
The medical associations in Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca issued statements Friday expressing alarm at the government’s decision to end the face mask requirement, saying they believe it was premature. “We understood the decision would be made in May following the evaluation of more epidemiological data so we were surprised by the national COE’s action,” the Pichincha College of Physicians said in a statement. “We believe the decision was made too quickly, without adequate notice to communities facing different levels of Covid-19 infection.”
Local Emergency Operations Committees in Guayaquil and Cuenca, also complained they received no advance information about the decision. The Guayaquil COE said it was “surprised and disturbed” by the announcement and said it would maintain the mask requirement for indoor spaces and for large outdoor crowds until May 15.
Cuenca officials said they would maintain current masking requirements until the local COE meets Tuesday. “We will review the government’s decision and, at that time, and make our own recommendation,” the COE said in a press release. “Our top priority is the health and safety of the citizens of Cuenca.”
The Ministry of Health and national COE said Friday that local governments are free to make their own decisions but pointed out that they will no longer be able to fine violators. “They can make recommendations to the public but they can no longer enforce masking rules with fines or other sanctions,” a Ministry spokesman said. “The decision of the national COE eliminates the option to penalize offenders. This rule applies nationwide.”
The Health Ministry and COE provided more details Friday about lifting the mask mandate, again emphasizing that those sick with respiratory illnesses and those with compromising health conditions should continue to wear masks. It also said that private businesses and offices are free to maintain masking requirements and ask for proof of vaccination. “Thursday decision is for public spaces and we are not infringing on the right of private businesses to protect customers and clients as they see appropriate.”
The spokesman added: “We strongly encourage people who prefer to wear face masks to continue doing it if they feel it is correct for their personal situation.”
The international airports in Guayaquil and Quito have adopted different rules following the government’s decision. Passengers and guests at the Quito airport will be allowed to go maskless while they will be required in Guayaquil.
Not all doctors oppose lifting the mask requirement. “I agree with the change and think it’s important for restoring normal functions of society,” says Jorge Bermeo, a Guayaquil general practice doctor. “The case numbers are very low and, more important, Omicron is relatively mild, similar to the common cold. I would feel differently if we were still seeing the Alpha and Delta variants but we are not.”
Public opinion surveys of the decision showed mixed reactions, with many people saying they would continue wearing masks while others said they look forward to taking them off. Cuencano Eduardo Alvear says it is too soon to end the mandate. “This is a dangerous disease that has killed many people and until the pandemic is over entirely, we should keep wearing them.”
Luis Rubén Jerez of Quito says he has already removed his mask. “I am for the decision. We have beat the virus and it now time for people to be free of the rules that have upset our lives for more than two years,” he said. “People should be free to wear masks if they want but they should not be required to. It is now a matter of personal responsibility.”