Face masks will be required for everyone over 12 years old in most publicly accessible indoor locations and transport, as well as large outdoor gatherings, beginning at 6 a.m. Thursday after Longyearbyen city officials unanimously approved the mandate during an emergency meeting Wednesday.
The decision is due to the increasing number of tourists and the large public gatherings happening during this week’s Solfestuka festival, according to the Longyearbyen Community Council’s Administration Committee that acted upon the recommendation by Longyearbyen Hospital Infection Control Doctor Knut Selmer.
“The infection control doctor’s advice has come after increased evidence of infections in Tromsø and Ullensaker last week, an increased number of visitors from the mainland to Longyearbyen, and that several close contacts to infected people on the mainland are now in quarantine in Longyearbyen,” the city announced in a statement.
Individuals are responsible for providing their own masks. Violating the order can be punished with being removed from the location, or fines or imprisonment for up to six months.
The mandate is currently scheduled to be in effect until midnight April 7, but it “can be extended, revoked or changed through a new decision,” according to the city.
Face masks must be worn by customers and employees in the following areas:
• Individual shops and complexes.
• Restaurants and pubs, except while sitting at a table for a meal.
• In waiting rooms at the hospital and any other health care service.
• In buses and taxis.
• At all common areas at Svalbard Airport.
• At hairdressers and other similar treatment businesses Customers can remove masks when necessary for treatment.
• Recreation, cultural and religious facilities, except for those engaged in athletic or cultural activity.
• Large outdoor gatherings.
Svalbard’s first face mask mandate is being imposed on the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic, and at a time when some other locations such as specific U.S. states are eliminating all virus-related restrictions in defiance of recommendations from national health officials.
While Svalbard remains one of the few places in the world with no officially diagnosed COVID-19 cases, the return of tourists and post-high school students this spring has been cause for widespread concern among local officials and residents. Earlier this week officials announced a handful of tourists were being quarantined due to close contact with an infected person on the mainland before arriving in Svalbard.
Virtually all of Longyearbyen’s residents over 65 years old and those with the most serious health conditions have been vaccinated, and a mass vaccination of about 200 residents ages 56-64 is scheduled Wednesday afternoon (the first of a two-dose regimen). However, the city’s mandate does not mention an exemption for those who have been vaccinated.