Masks Q&A: Who has to wear them in shops and what happens if you don’t?

Move to make wearing of masks mandatory in retail outlets follows a spike in cases

As with public transport, there is a small cohort of people who will be exempt from the requirement. Photograph: PA

What is happening with face coverings?

From Monday, it will be mandatory to wear face coverings in shops and shopping centres. Prior to this it was an advisory


There has been a spike in Covid-19 numbers in the Republic in recent weeks. The five-day average has gone from a low single figures per day to approaching 50 per day.


The Government is fearful of a rise in community transmission (as in cases where the source of infection is not know) which could put the country back to where we were at the start of the pandemic.

Do face coverings work?

Initially it was thought masks were not an effective protection against the virus. At the beginning of the pandemic scientists did not realise how infectious Covid-19 was and thought the drawbacks of asking everybody to wear a mask outweighed the benefits.

However, as the pandemic progressed, epidemiologists have changed their view and now believe face coverings can stop the spread of the virus.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) recently found the correct use of face masks by people who are asymptomatic may help reduce the spread of infection in the community who otherwise may have unwittingly spreading the virus.

A recent study across 198 countries found those with cultural norms of mask-wearing had lower death rates from Covid-19.

It explains how places like South Korea and Japan, where there is a strong culture of mask-wearing, have lower death rates than western countries and the United States where they are not the norm.

While Perspex shields are not as effective at stopping the virus or the spread of it, they are better than nothing.

How do masks work?

Masks work by stopping most of the droplets which occur when people cough, sneeze or talk. They are better at protecting you from other people than vice versa, but if everybody wears a mask, the impact can be dramatic.

In one case, a man flew from China to Toronto and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

He had a dry cough and wore a mask on the flight yet all 25 people closest to him on the flight tested negative for Covid-19.

In another case, in the United States, two hair stylists had close contact with 140 clients while sick with Covid-19. Everyone wore a mask and none of the clients tested positive.

How will mask wearing be enforced?

The legislation allowing for compulsory face coverings is the same as that used for compulsory face coverings on public transport.

The wearing of face coverings will be enforced by a statutory instrument under the Irish Health Act 1947 as amended in 2020.

It allows for a fine of up to €2,500 or six months in prison.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the intervention of the gardaí will be a “last resort” when it came to enforcing the wearing of face coverings in shops and said there was a “huge level of compliance” already.

Retail Ireland said it is "crucial that it does not fall to retail staff to ensure compliance".

The organisation's director, Arnold Dillon, said enforcement of the measures should be left to the appropriate authorities and retail staff should not be exposed to "the potential disputes and discord that might arise".

So far the portents for mass compliance are good. The National Transport Authority says there has been 95 per cent compliance on public transport with the wearing of face coverings.

NTA spokesman Dermot O’Gara said: “Compliance on face coverings has remained very high. The approach of engagement, education and encouragement seems to be working well.”

A Government spokeswoman said she was not aware of any prosecutions for non-compliance with facemasks on public transport.

Will everybody have to wear a face covering?

As with public transport, no child under the age of 13 has to wear a mask in shops. Other exemptions are: those who cannot put one on, wear or remove a face covering because of any physical or mental illness, impairment or disability or without severe distress.

Anyone who needs to communicate with another person who has difficulties communicating, as in someone who is hard of hearing, is also exempted.

Will children have to wear face coverings in schools?

The guidelines for children returning to school is that it is not practical for many students to wear a mask properly for the duration of a school day.

Cloth face coverings are not suitable for children under the age of 13 and anyone over that age who has trouble breathing, or has special needs and who may feel upset or very uncomfortable, should not wear one either.

Older students should not be requested to wear a facial covering but can opt to wear one if they wish.

Teachers will not be required to wear face masks, as they conceal facial expression and can make communication difficult except in situations where physical distancing is impossible.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times