Covid Success Story Stands Out for Its Controversial Mask Policy

Face-Mask Photo Op Adds to Bewilderment Over Non-Use in Denmark

When Europe’s leaders were photographed last week discussing their Covid-19 rescue plan, it was the first time Danes saw their prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, wearing a face mask.

Denmark stands out for its fast and effective response to the virus, leaving it with a death rate that’s roughly a fifth that in neighboring Sweden. But Danes aren’t required to wear face masks, and local authorities generally don’t recommend them.

Covid Success Story Stands Out for Its Controversial Mask Policy

Now, amid the risk of a second wave of infections, some are wondering whether Denmark’s current policy is wise. The country’s oldest newspaper, Berlingske, recently noted that “the whole world is wearing face masks, even Donald Trump.” It went on to suggest that the Danes had now positioned themselves “to the right of Trump,” when it comes to masks.

Henning Bundgaard, chief physician at Denmark’s Rigshospitalet and a professor in cardiology, is finalizing a study that explores how effective face masks are outside hospitals in halting the spread of the virus. He says research conducted before the pandemic hit isn’t conclusive.

“All these countries recommending face masks haven’t made their decisions based on new studies,” Bundgaard said in an interview in Copenhagen.

He says there’s evidence to suggest that the only effective face covering might be a visor, because the virus can spread through all mucous membranes, including via the eyes. He worries a cloth covering that only protects the nose and mouth provides a “false sense of security.”

The World Health Organization updated its stance on masks in June, encouraging people to wear them when social distancing isn’t an option. About 170 countries currently adhere to its recommendations.

In Sweden, which has stood out for its controversial decision not to impose a proper lockdown during the pandemic, the stance on face masks has also evolved. State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said in June that masks are “possibly” to be recommended for people using public transport, but added that such coverings “definitely won’t become an optimal solution in any way,” in an interview with Dagens Industri.


Denmark recently adjusted its guidelines, and is now advising sick people to wear masks if they have to leave their home to go to the doctor. People who go to the airport also need to don a face covering. But Danes can go to shops, restaurants and gyms, and use public transport without masks.

Meanwhile, there are signs that contagion rates in Denmark are on the rise. Health Minister Magnus Heunicke recently told Danes to take the threat of a second outbreak seriously. “We’re currently seeing an increase in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19,” he wrote on his Facebook page. In the week through July 17, there were 240 new cases, roughly twice as many as two weeks earlier, he said.

Bundgaard says the simple rules that currently exist in Denmark -- hand-washing, social distancing, self-isolating if you’re sick -- are effective because they’re easy to remember. He worries that using face masks might lead people to be “sloppy” in following the other guidelines.

Bundgaard’s study on masks is due to be published next month. In the meantime, he says he hopes they don’t become mandatory in Denmark.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.