Cloth masks, a staple of the pandemic, are now banned on some airlines and in public spaces in Germany and Austria, because there are no standards guiding their efficacy.

BY ELIZABETH SEGRAN

Cloth masks have become a staple of our pandemic lives. In the earliest days of COVID-19, we followed online tutorials to sew masks from old T-shirts. Soon, companies of all kinds—from Old Navy to designer Christian Siriano—flooded the market with masks, so we could keep a stash handy whenever we stepped out the door. But the era of the cloth mask may be coming to an end.

As COVID-19 continues to surge, accelerated by the delta variant, several European governments and companies are banning cloth masks, arguing that they are not as effective as medical masks in the midst of the current outbreak. Instead, they are mandating medical-grade masks. It’s unclear yet whether American companies will follow suit, but it could be worth preparing for that eventuality by understanding the difference between cloth and medical masks, and figuring out where to buy medical masks.

Many airlines now ban fabric masks on flights. Last week, Finnair was the latest to adopt this policy, joining Air France, Lufthansa, Swissair, Croatia Airlines, and LATAM Airlines in announcing that passengers would not be allowed to wear cloth masks on flights. The reason? “Fabric masks are slightly less efficient at protecting people from infection than surgical masks,” according to Finnair’s statement. Now, all of these airlines are only allowing N95 masks, surgical masks, and respirators that do not have exhaust valves.

At the start of 2021, European countries began recommending the use of medical masks, as more transmissible strains of the coronavirus—like the alpha (or British) variant—began spreading. In France, the government made it mandatory to wear masks in public and recommended that citizens only use disposable surgical masks or N95 masks. In Germany and Austria, the governments mandated that citizens wear filtering facepieces (FFP)—a European standard that offers a similar filtration system to the N95—on public transportation, in workplaces, and in shops. In its announcement, the German government said that medical masks offer the wearer more protection than cloth masks, “which are not subject to any standards with regards to their effectiveness.”

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