Face masks certainly didn't spoil my trip to Italy. I consumed my body weight in pasta and negronis, stayed at a couple of first-rate lakeside hotels, and spent hours gazing wistfully at the meeting of verdant mountains and shimmering water. But they were a distraction.
I'm no fan of Britain's mask policy, imposed long after the outbreak had peaked and despite a lack of decent evidence for their efficacy. However, Italy's rules make ours look positively sensible.
Despite clear proof that the risk of catching Covid outdoors is vanishingly small, masks must be worn outside in Italy. Not all the time, however. They are mandatory outside only between the hours of 6pm and 6am – because that is when the virus comes calling, apparently – and only "in proximity of locations and premises that are open to the public, as well as in public spaces whose physical characteristics may facilitate the formation of gatherings of both spontaneous and/or occasional nature". Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this confusing definition (and the €1,000 ($A1,622) fine if you're caught in breach of the rules), Italians are playing it safe. Masks are worn by the vast majority, indoors and out, and not just in the evenings, but also during the daytime. Even when it's sunny and 30C. Even when social distancing is eminently possible. In short, it's a very masky place. More akin, in my mind, to a vast open-air hospital than a truly relaxing holiday destination.
But it was the bizarre little subplots to this overarching tableau that really engrossed me. Take the rules for restaurants. Until mask devotees invent a new method (suggestions on a postcard), eating will continue to require a significant degree of facial freedom. Therefore, naturally, masks may be dispensed with at the dinner table. Italians love their food, and they love talking loudly, and every restaurant we visited was packed to the rafters with happy people scoffing spaghetti, bellowing across the table, flirting outrageously, and laughing merrily. Gather 100 Italians in a restaurant and you'll soon have respiratory particles everywhere.
So what meaningful purpose does it serve to put a mask on, as you must, to pop to the loo, to be shown to your table, or to leave the establishment? It makes as much sense as a peeing section in a swimming pool. The rule applies to restaurants with outdoor seating too. I watched countless people arrive maskless, greet the waiter maskless, don their mask for the three-metre walk to their table on the terrace, and then remove their mask to spend two hours in close proximity to other diners. What's the bleeding point?
A few diners, whether due to fear of infection or a desire to signal their virtue, kept their masks on right until the moment that their food arrived. But chatting with friends isn't easy when you've got a sweaty rag covering your face, so down comes the mask to crack a joke, up it goes again to listen to the laughter, down it comes again to give the waiter your order, and so on.
The waiters have been told to wear their masks at all times, and when it's a hot summer's day you really pity the poor souls. The masks soon slip below their noses, or even their chins. It's understandable. Some people still claim to the contrary, but when worn for more than a few moments, masks are uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and make it harder to breath (which is why people exercising are exempt).
The widespread removal of masks in a busy restaurant made it all the more absurd when I spotted lone Italians, miles from anyone and in the open air, masked up to the nines. What perverse logic created such a scenario?
When Italians do get around to removing their masks, some stuff them in their pocket, but others (fearful, perhaps, of a jobsworth Carabinieri lurking around the corner) prefer to keep them on show. Most opt to wear them on their wrist, or above the elbow. Some keep them around their neck, slip them over their forehead like a bandana, or tie them to a belt buckle. Others simply leave them dangling in the breeze from one ear. They have become a fashion accessory, required to avoid a fine but serving little other purpose.
In hotels you are supposed to wear them in public areas, but I was told by one concierge not to worry too much unless I'm around other guests. Indeed, all service industry staff seem to use the same rule of thumb. The mask is kept close at hand, and quickly thrust into place when a customer comes calling (only to be cast aside again because said customer can't decipher the muffled instructions).
It all adds up to an awful lot of touching the face, removing and replacing the mask, and generally offering ample opportunity for it to become contaminated. This is one of the key arguments against mandatory masks, and Dr. Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, has repeatedly warned that incorrectly worn masks can trap the virus and increase the risk of contracting it. So just wear the mask correctly, you might say. It's harder than you think, and extends to more than just covering your nose and your mouth. The World Health Organisation guidance on using them is a case in point. It even advises storing one in a clean plastic bag resealable bag if you plan to reuse it. Who is doing that, really? Certainly not the Italians, nor anyone else who wants to live a normal life and not one dictated to them from a safety manual.
Another argument against masks is that they give the wearer a false sense of security and may be used instead of social distancing. I saw plenty to support this theory in Italy, not least a trip I took on a small boat to visit one of the islands of the Italian Lakes. At least 30 of us were crammed into the little vessel, filling every seat and with another dozen standing. No matter, we were all wearing masks! One hotel I visited refused to let guests serve themselves at the breakfast buffet, forcing a long line of hungry folk to wait for assistance. Masked up, social distancing went out of the window and they jostled cheek by jowl for their turn at the croissants.
A third reason to abandon our mask obsession is the waste. Even if we look back on these ludicrous rules and chuckle at the silliness of it all, we won't be able to laugh away the damage to our environment. The war against plastic and the drive to recycle has been forgotten, and a hoard of discarded masks at the bottom of Lake Maggiore could be one of the longest lasting legacies of this pandemic.
The Telegraph, London