MASK MOVEMENT: Longyearbyen residents, many of them maskless during much of the COVID-19 pandemic, now covering up due to warnings and returning travellers

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Else-Marie Prytz says she didn’t wear a face mask during the months following the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic last March, when the most extreme local restrictions were in effect including a total ban on tourist coming to Svalbard. But she was wearing one for the first time while shopping at Svalbardbutikken on Tuesday afternoon in the wake of a new wave of infections in Norway and Europe, prompting a new set of restrictions and a strong recommendation from local officials to wear masks.

masks for sale

Face masks, seen at the front counter of Apotek 1 Spitsbergen, are increasing in sales and use since local officials issued a strong recommendation Monday people wear them in public places. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Prytz, a resident of Longyearbyen for the past 15 years who works for the city government, said she’s following the recommendation in public locations even through she’s not more concerned about being infected with the virus now than during other periods of the pandemic.

“I think if you’re careful it’s safe,” she said.

Svalbard is one of fewer than 10 “countries” as classified by the World Health Organization that has not had any officially diagnosed COVID-19 cases. But the “third wave” of infections that started in early December and appears to be spreading wider due to lax behavior by many on the mainland during the holidays have resulted in local officials reimplementing many of the early-stage restrictions, including closing the municipal and governor’s office to in-person public services.

A separate notice about the mask recommendation was published based on concerns about returning travellers and university students scheduled to start classes this month. Longyearbyen Hospital published its own advisory Tuesday urging everyone visiting the hospital to wear masks.

“It’s because everybody is coming back,” said Prytz’s husband Torgeir, a local political and recreational leader, who was also wearing a mask while shopping with his wife. “It doesn’t hurt to be careful. I’m not too concerned about myself, but it’s important for us to think about others.”

An unscientific monitoring of the supermarket and other indoor areas in the center of town throughout Tuesday suggests a significant number of residents and employees – if not a majority – are wearing masks, in contrast to much of the pandemic period. Mask usage was prominent at times after tourism resumed in July, due largely to visitors and tourism workers wearing them during specific periods. But that ebbed within weeks as new restrictions were announced following travel-related outbreaks in Norway and elsewhere, including aboard a Hurtigruten ferry that sailed in Svalbard’s waters without docking here.

Borghild Ørsted Yttredal, manager of  Apotek 1 Spitsbergen, said mask sales have increased since the local recommendation was issued Monday by the city and governor’s offices. Although hand sanitizer and some other items such as toilet paper were in short supply or sold out during the onset of the pandemic, Yttredal said there are no current supply issues with masks.

The notice recommends people wear masks at:

• Shops
• Restaurants, except when sitting at the table.
• The airport in the common areas.
• Other public places where it is difficult to keep a distance of one meter.

The local recommendation does not apply to kindergartens, Longyearbyen School or children under 12 years of ago, said Knut Selmer, infection control doctor at Longyearbyen Hospital.