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Fabric, surgical or filter – what are the rules in France on mask types?

Photo: AFP
As an increasing number of places in France become 'masque obligatoire' zones - many people have asked what type of masks should be worn. Here's what the rules say.

If you're in a shop, on public transport, at secondary school, in a shared workspace or outdoors in one of seven French cities you will be required to wear a mask. In short, the odds of getting through your day without entering an area where masks are compulsory are now pretty low.

READ ALSO These are France's new rules on masks in the workplace

But with several different types of mask available, what do the French rules say about which one you should be wearing?

Mask types

Broadly there are three types of mask – the FFP masks with filters, which are generally used by medical professionals, the single-use surgical masks and multi-use washable fabric masks.

FFP masks offer the highest level of protection. Initially due to shortages these were reserved for medical personnel only in France however that rule has been relaxed as production was stepped up and they are now available to the general public.

These are the most expensive types at around €20 each and you will also need to keep buying replacement filters.

Surgical masks are effective but bad for the environment. Photo: AFP

Surgical masks – the single-use surgical masks offer the next highest level of protection, filtering out around 95 percent of particles in lab tests.

Their disadvantage is the cost – as they are only supposed to be worn once you will need a constant supply – and their environmental impact. There has been much alarm about masks thrown onto the street or even into the watercouses, but even if they are disposed of correctly they create an enormous amount of waste over time.

Emmanuel Macron rocks a patriotic fabric mask with the colours of the French flag. Photo: AFP

Washable fabric masks – these filtered between 90 and 70 percent of particles in tests, which the Haut Conseil de la santé publique (council of public health) considers sufficient for everyday use, but advises that people in vulnerable groups should wear surgical masks.

These are more expensive than surgical masks for a single mask, but have the advantage that you can keep washing them and wear them again. They also have a much lower environmental impact than the surgical ones. There are lots of these available, but not all meet official standards – the guideline says that if you hold your mask up to the sun and can see through it, then it's not thick enough.

The fabric masks now come in a huge variety of colours and patterns, if you're interested in the fashion aspect.

The face visor alone does not count as a mask in France. Photo: AFP

Visors – the full-face plastic visors suspended from a headband do not count as a mask under the French rules.

These should not be confused with transparent face masks – often worn to help lip-readers and people hard of hearing – which are a valid mask type under French rules.

Face masks with a transparent panel – legal under French rules – can be helpful for lip-readers. Photo: AFP

What do the French rules say?

Other than ruling out visors, the French national regulations do not specify mask-type, only that the mask must fully cover your nose and mouth (and thus wearing it dangling from your ear or tucked under your chin can earn you a fine).

The government advice site states that the mask “may be a surgical mask or a fabric mask” and some local authorities have gone further in their own mask rules, with the commune of Creil spelling out in its decree that the mask must be “a cloth mask, a surgical mask or a disposable mask”.

The government has been largely recommending fabric masks, both on environmental grounds and supply grounds – many French factories are now making fabric masks while surgical masks are still often imported from countries including China.

Health minister Olivier Véran said: “I am committed to wearing masks that are not surgical masks, which I reserve for caregivers, but masks that are washable, renewable and certainly less polluting. Surgical masks are limited resources, produced under different conditions.

“We consider that, for the general population, fabric masks are the best option.”

If you are one of those who received free masks – either from the national distribution to low income families or via your local authority – they will be fabric masks.

Are there any exceptions?

While the French state doesn't differentiate between fabric and surgical masks it seems that some businesses do, and we have received reports of some private sites specifying surgical masks only.

Private businesses are free to set their own rules on condition for entry so you could in theory be refused entry if you are wearing a different type of mask, even if you are within the French government rules.

This seems to be a rare occurrence, but airlines do seem to be creating very specific mask rules.

Some airlines are specifying surgical masks only while others want the FFP filter masks. If you are planning to fly check carefully which type of mask your airline is demanding, as you could be refused boarding if you don't have the correct mask type.

If Amber Heard ever wants to come to France she will need to get a proper mask. Photo: AFP

What about scarves, bandanas and other options?

These are less common now but you still see some people trying to style out their mask-wearing with an adapted scarf or other item of clothing.

The French government decree on masks of July 10th does specify that masks must meet technical standards around fit, filtration and breathability. So while you are unlikely to be fined if your home-made mask is a millimetre too thin, this rule does give police flexibility to warn or fine people who are wearing something that obviously isn't a proper mask, even if it does cover their nose and mouth.

 

 

 


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