Switzerland on Wednesday, July 1st, somewhat surprisingly introduced a compulsory mask requirement in public transport – some two months after similar moves were adopted in France, Germany, Italy and Austria.
The reluctance to put in place a mask requirement has made Switzerland something of an outlier among its neighbours.
Germany introduced mask requirements in all of its 16 states in late April in public transport and shops. Some states also made it a requirement in other public spaces. As of mid-June, the requirement is set to remain valid for the foreseeable future.
A lack of compliance
A study from June 18th showed only six percent of transit passengers wore masks in Swiss cities.
The Association of Public Transport has a slightly higher estimate, saying that approximately one in 10 Swiss commuters wore a mask on public transport at the end of June.
What are the rules for masks in Switzerland?
Since the outbreak of the virus, little has changed regarding masks in Switzerland.
On April 22nd, The Local Switzerland discussed why Switzerland was still reluctant to put in place a compulsory mask requirement.
Although the federal government upgraded its advice from 'recommending' wearing masks in public transport to 'urgently recommending' them, little changed in the way of a compulsory requirement until July 1st.
Up until then, the only mask requirement in Switzerland was for protests and rallies.
Wearing masks in shops and supermarkets is still only a recommendation, which is perhaps why Swiss cross-border shoppers keep getting fined in Germany for failing to comply.
Why no mask requirement in Switzerland?
There are a number of competing theories as to why a mask requirement took so long to find a place in Switzerland.
One early reason was a lack of familiarity with wearing masks when compared to Asian countries, although this is now contradicted by evidence from Switzerland's neighbouring states.
Swiss authorities have been reluctant to put in place mask requirements for a number of reasons, one being a lack of available masks.
Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Switzerland was completely reliant on its neighbours for manufacturing masks – with none being made locally.
As a result Switzerland was reluctant to put in place a mask requirement, noting that available masks should be kept for healthcare workers.
During the height of the pandemic, neighbouring countries like Germany and France blocked shipments of masks and other protective equipment to Switzerland, saying they were needed at home.
While machines, which can be used to make masks, were imported into Switzerland in April and production began in May, Swiss politicians have said the country should learn the lessons of the coronavirus and begin manufacturing their own personal protective equipment.
Commuters wear masks in Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Some other reasons given in the Swiss media include concerns relating to pollution and the environment of so many disposable masks, as well as uncertainty over the effectiveness of masks in preventing infections.
German newspaper Südkurier reports that a number of Swiss shoppers in Germany feel they do not need to wear masks as they feel healthy and can't be spreading the virus – ignoring the prevalence of infectious carriers who do not display any symptoms.
NOTE: This piece was originally titled 'Why are coronavirus masks still not required in Switzerland?' and was written on July 1st before the surprise announcement was made by the Federal Council.