Germany adjusting to new rules on wearing a mask

As state politicians flex their federal muscles, public grappling with 16 different sets of face mask rules

The window of “Die Perücke”, a wig shop on western Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm boulevard, is always worth a look. On Tuesday, between shiny red wigs for €200 and a more luxurious model with blonde, natural hair for €998, loitering Berliners had a new sight: €6.95 cotton face masks.

As elsewhere, everyone’s getting in on the face mask business now in Berlin: newspaper kiosks, post offices and, as of Tuesday, wig shops.

“We only got delivery today but they’re flying out the door,” says the sales woman from behind a navy blue cotton mask matching her dress. “It has a pouch so you can put in something extra in, we recommend kitchen roll or a coffee filter.”

Minutes later, Berlin became the last of Germany’s 16 federal states to announce a Maskenpflicht – or obligation to wear a mask – for customers in stores as well as for anyone taking public transport. At the bus stop beside “Die Perücke”, 20 year-old student Timo unpacked his new cotton mask like unwelcome exam results.


“It’s more a placebo for anxious people, I think,” he said, “but I guess we’re all wearing masks now.”

His resigned scepticism reflects the mood among many German politicians. For weeks they resisted following Austria and other EU neighbours in making face masks obligatory.

Two weeks ago chancellor Angela Merkel described masks, when used incorrectly, as “virus catapults”. But her administration has only limited competence on health matters and, last week, she watched as her government’s “urgent recommendation” to wear masks was upgraded to an obligation by one federal state after another.

The Covid-19 coronavirus doesn’t care whether it’s in Brandenburg or Schleswig-Holstein, but state politicians have flexed their federal muscles so that, as with Germany’s lockdown and subsequent loosening, Germans are grappling with 16 different sets of face mask rules.

Medical mask

Any kind of face covering is acceptable: a medical mask or a cloth mask, even a scarf or cloth. There’s wide variety in fines: the southern state of Bavaria, a Covid-19 hotspot, is threatening fines of €150 for using public transport without a mask and up to €5,000 for shops that allow employees work without masks.

Some states have fines of €10, others have no fines at all. Some states insist on masks for all, others exclude children under six or seven. Medical experts have warned parents not to give masks to children under two.

Two weeks after Austria’s mask obligation, regional leaders in Germany have defended the new rule saying it protect others from a wearer who is an unwitting Covid-19 carrier.

But all leading doctors and medical groups warn that most masks have fibres woven too broadly to trap virus particles. In addition, people risk infecting themselves by handling masks carelessly or failing to observe social distance rules.

“A legal obligation to wear a non-functioning mask is a capitulation by the state... to cover up the failure to supply us with enough [medical] masks,” said Dr Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chairman of the World Medical Association, to German radio.

“When I go shopping of course I wear a mask, but I wear a mask that is worth the name.”

As 82 million Germans race to buy masks, health authorities have warned against online and tabloid recommendations. Last week the Bild daily suggested that vacuum cleaner bags make the most effective home-made mask.

Vacuum cleaner bag manufacturers and drug stores disagree: the material is not effective in trapping virus particles and, even worse, contains poisonous anti-bacterial powder. “If this powder is inhaled,” a spokeswoman for the drugstore chain DM warned, “it is dangerous for the lungs and digestive tract.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin