Spain eyes looser lockdown after kids allowed outside

Spanish authorities on Monday prepared to further loosen one of Europe’s toughest coronavirus lockdowns and played down concerns that letting children outdoors after six weeks had led to crowds forming in public spaces.

Having suffered one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spain shut down public life on March 14 to curb its spread, but recently began to ease restrictions as it reined in the infection rate. The government is now preparing to phase out further restrictions on mobility.

In the most significant relaxation of the lockdown yet, on Sunday children under 14 were granted one hour of daily supervised outdoor activity if they adhered to physical distancing guidelines and stayed within one kilometre of their homes.

Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference the first day under the new regulations had gone well and the behaviour of most people had been “exemplary,” though again stressed the need for all to observe physical distancing rules.

Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa addresses parliament in Madrid on April 22. Illa has continued to stress the need for physical distancing rules even as the country begins to relax restrictions. (Sebastian Marsical/EFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Some local authorities had complained parents were allowing their kids to flout the regulations, and TV footage showed large crowds gathering in parks and on boardwalks across the country.

In the capital Madrid, police deployed drones to patrol recreational areas, broadcasting the new rules over loudspeaker and monitoring for any breaches.

“The rules are there to protect your children’s health,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said.

He said he had received reports of entire families out strolling together and children playing in groups, both of which remain prohibited.

At a press briefing in Barcelona, Catalan regional interior secretary Miquel Buch called for more nuanced regulations such as allowing children of different ages out at different times to avoid crowds.

He also said that, in future, the Spanish government should set aside specific times for vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, to be outdoors.

More testing underway

A long-awaited study into the prevalence of the coronavirus among the Spanish population began on Monday. Directed by the Carlos III Health Institute, it aims to test 36,000 families for the presence of antibodies generated to fight off the virus.

It should help researchers identify people who were infected but never tested because they did not become ill enough to seek medical attention or never developed symptoms.

The testing will help the government gauge the real extent of the epidemic, taking into account also those who may be immune or resistant to the infection.

In this file photo, people pass the entrance of the Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid, where a study on the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in the general population is being directed. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

“Its relevance goes beyond the purely scientific,” said the institute’s director, Raquel Yotti. “The goal is to help us make public-health decisions.”

Daily fatalities from the virus rose by 331 on Monday to a total of 23,521, edging up from 288 the previous day but well below the daily peak of more than 900 recorded in early April. Cumulative cases rose to 209,465 from 207,634 the day before.

If the daily death toll continues to fall, Spaniards of all ages will be allowed to exercise outdoors starting May 2, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced on Saturday.

He also said his cabinet would approve on Tuesday a wider plan to lift restrictions and gradually restart the country’s stuttering economy.

Although some key businesses have continued to operate through the shutdown, bars and restaurants remain closed and the country’s vital tourism sector has ground to a halt.

Other companies that had halted production are resuming trade in Spain as the contagion eases. Car-maker Volkswagen said Monday it would restart its assembly lines at its Seat factories in Spain.

The lockdown loosening will not be rolled out by the authorities in unison across the country. Instead, each region will decide its own plan based on several criteria, including the infection rate and capacity of local health services. 

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