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Madrid’s famous El Rastro market returns with new coronavirus safety measures



The famous El Rastro street market in the center of Madrid opened to the public on Sunday after being suspended for 37 weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stallholders and visitors both agreed it is good to finally be back – albeit in a slightly different guise.

In a bid to reduce contagions, only half of the 1,000 stallholders are allowed to sell their wares, and capacity has been set at 2,702. Without the typical hustle and bustle, the outdoor market – which sells everything from clothes to antiques – has lost some of its character. But that does not deter one group of early arrivals, like Alexia, who came from the nearby city of Getafe to buy a pair of thermal pants. She’s annoyed that she hasn’t found them yet, but generally, the mood in El Rastro is positive. It’s better than nothing, say visitors and the stallholders.

It’s been 258 days since the last time El Rastro was open to the public, shortly before the government declared a state of alarm in mid-March. No one remembers a time when the popular Sunday market had been closed for a longer period.

Marcelo Bouso has been preparing his clothes stall since 8am. He carries the metal frames like a cross on his back to the top of Ribera de Curtidores street. Slowly he gets everything ready as just a few police officers walk past. He sells self-designed shirts and screenprints that he makes in El Tiemblo, in Ávila province, where he left from at 6.30am. The new spot he’s been assigned to in El Rastro is not too far away from his old one and he says he has had no problem finding it – a view shared by many vendors.

In front of his stand is the legendary antique store Galerías Piquer, which remains closed. It’s still early. During the months that El Rastro has been suspended, Bouso has done a bit of everything: painting homes, erecting fences, and working for a moving company. He has even participated the odd concert – he’s a percussionist in a batucada orchestra.

“It’s been years since I’ve been here,” says one local police officer standing at the corner of the bar Cascorro Uno, where other officers are drinking coffee before beginning their workday. One asks about how the new coronavirus safety measures are going. Under the new rules, each market stand has to be two meters apart. El Rastro is a sprawling market that covers several streets in the downtown neighborhood of La Latina. Now at every crossroad, there are large numbers of officers monitoring capacity. They form part of a team of 150 police officers tasked with ensuring that coronavirus restrictions are complied with.

Maite de la Fuente, 42, is taking out her merchandise from boxes, while the police tell the neighboring stand holder to only use the authorized space. Her father Ramón, who is retired, is there to lend her a hand. “I’m the understudy,” he jokes. “I only come out to play when I’m told to.”

Blue fences and plastic tape seal off the perimeter of the new Rastro market. Visitors can walk around freely on the sidewalk, but capacity is limited on the car-free streets, where the stands are located. Members of the Civil Protection force are using electronic counters to tally the number of people who are leaving and entering the allocated space.

Meanwhile, the sun is warming up Campillo del Nuevo Mundo square, another one of the popular corners of the street market. Sellers and buyers start to haggle over prices. Javier González, a 51-year-old vendor who has come all the way from Tarancón in Cuenca, is trying to sell a watch to a potential customer for €200 – a price that is instantly rejected. González drops the price to €150. “Look, it has green numbers,” he says in an effort to highlight its beauty and value. At a nearby stand, a similar scene is playing out over a statue of Baby Jesus that costs €60. It’s passed around as the customer begins to haggle a better price. Passers-by gather around to watch the negotiations. In this respect, save for the fact that everyone is wearing a face mask, El Rastro appears just like it was before the pandemic.

The streets begin filling up and by midday, El Rastro has recovered some of its characteristic bustle. But it’s nothing like the mass crowds that used to flock to the market every Sunday. Thanks to the large police numbers and safe distancing rules, El Rastro is at least no longer a haven for pickpockets. And it’s not just officers that are monitoring the situation. Police drones are also being used to control capacity at the market. While the drones fly above, the officer operating the device uses a walkie-talkie to call for a road to be cut off to ease the flow of visitors.

Not everyone, however, is pleased with how El Rastro’s first day back has been organized. Around 20 vendors from the Rastro Punto Es Association have been protesting outside Cascorro square against Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida of the conservative Popular Party (PP), yelling “Hands up, this is a robbery!” and “Resign, Almeida.” They complain that they were not warned that the streets were only going to be one way for visitors. The spokesperson of the association, Mayka Torralbo, accuses Madrid city officials of “improvising” measures, arguing that “neither vendors nor the public knows what rules to follow.”

Meanwhile, 60-year-old Ping, a Madrileño of Chinese origin, is walking through the market with his wife, son and his son’s girlfriend. When asked why he has come to El Rastro, he simply replies: “Today is the first day.” The family is from the Chinese province of Shaanxi, famous for its thousands of clay soldiers known as the Terracotta Army. Nothing at all like the porcelain figures and other odds and ends being sold by 44-year-old Pedro Escudero. “I am selling old things that my father had,” he says, pointing to a pillbox with a 1970s black and white photo of the Valley of the Fallen, the controversial memorial site to the victims of the Spanish Civil War where until last year the dictator Francisco Franco had been buried. “Let’s see if I make €30 or €40 to feed the kids.”

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Madrid, Basque Country, Valencia announce new coronavirus restrictions




The relentless advance of the coronavirus in Spain is leading some regional governments to introduce even more severe restrictions on mobility. Madrid, the Basque Country and the Valencia region on Friday announced new measures that will go into effect soon.


In Madrid, the deputy public health chief Antonio Zapatero announced more perimetral lockdowns, now affecting 56 basic health zones and 25 municipalities that are home to 24% of the region’s residents but account for 30% of all coronavirus cases.

The director general of the Public Health agency, Elena Andradas, said that nine basic health zones – administrative areas that do not necessarily coincide with neighborhoods or districts – and six municipalities have a 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants above 1,000 and will be subject “to special restrictions on mobility.” The decision expands on the list of health zones and municipalities that came under mobility restrictions last week.

The new affected municipalities are Cercedilla, Navacerrada, Collado Villalba, Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Los Molinos, Quijorna, Serranillos del Valle and Colmenar de Oreja. The new affected health zones are Las Ciudades, in Getafe; as well as La Rivota, Ramón y Cajal, Doctor Trueta and Pedro Laín Entralgo, in Alcorcón.

Additionally, the overnight curfew will begin at 10pm and businesses must close by 9pm, including food and drink establishments. Authorities are also banning meetings inside homes with members of other households, while the upper limit on the number of people from different households who may gather outside the home in food or drink establishments is now four, down from six.

These measures will be adopted starting on Monday, January 25 and last at least two weeks.

Basque Country

On a day when the number of new reported cases nationwide set a record high for the second day in a row, authorities in the Basque Country said they will seal off all of the region’s 252 municipalities beginning on Monday. Social gatherings will be reduced to four people.

The 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the region was above 500 cases on Friday, twice the figure considered an extreme risk scenario (which also takes into account other variables such as pressure on hospitals). Right now over 70% of Spain’s territory is in the extreme risk category.

The Basque city of Bilbao and 50 other locations came under a perimetral lockdown in the early hours of Friday because of their high incidence rate. After the weekend, every other city, town and village in this region of 2.2 million people will be sealed off as well. Only essential trips that can be justified will be allowed across municipal lines. This is on top of the provincial and regional lockdowns that are already in effect.

The Basque health chief, Gotzone Sagardui, said the decision was a response to the worsening epidemiological figures. “This is not the time to relax, but to act with utmost anticipation on preventive action,” she said.

The curfew starting time has not been altered, despite the Basque government’s wishes to bring it forward to 8pm from the current 10pm. The move was debated on Wednesday at a meeting of central and regional health officials but did not gain support from the central government.

Food and drink establishments must close at 8pm except in locations with an incidence rate of over 500, where they must close altogether. This is currently the case in Bilbao.

The measures will be in effect for 20 days, subject to review.

Valencia region

The Valencian government is preparing an “imminent” decree to forbid members of different households from meeting inside homes. Exceptions will be made for people who need to provide care, couples who don’t live under the same roof and elderly people who live by themselves and may stay with family members.

Deputy premier Mónica Oltra made the announcement on Friday following a meeting of regional government officials. Earlier this week, Valencian authorities ordered all food and drink establishments to shut down for 14 days and told retail stores to close at 6pm as the virus continues to expand in the region at “an extraordinary rate,” in the words of regional premier Ximo Puig.

The Valencia health department has started to contact neighborhood associations to get the word out that people should self-confine due to the severity of the situation, the regional daily Diario Información reported.

Rafael Ruiz, president of Alicante’s Provincial Federation of Neighborhood Associations, told this newspaper that he received a call from the district’s healthcare center: “They are asking for people to stay at home. They are scared because the situation is getting out of hand.”

All three provinces in the region – Castellón, Valencia and Alicante – are in the extreme risk scenario. The 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants has been climbing almost vertically since the end of the Christmas period, and on Friday stood above 1,000. Some Covid-19 patients are already being transferred to field hospitals as healthcare facilities struggle to deal with a tremendous surge in infections.

A home confinement cannot be legally imposed in Spain under the current emergency state approved by parliament in late October and due to expire in May. But the string of increasingly strict restrictions imposed by regional governments is coming close to a de facto lockdown.


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Storm Filomena: Spain sees ‘exceptional’ snowfall




Storm Filomena has blanketed parts of Spain in heavy snow, with half of the country on red alert for more on Saturday.

Road, rail and air travel has been disrupted and interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said the country was facing “the most intense storm in the last 50 years”.

Madrid, one of the worst affected areas, is set to see up to 20cm (eight inches) of snow in the next 24 hours.

Further south the storm caused rivers to burst their banks.

Four deaths have been reported so far as a result of Filomena. Officials said two people had been found frozen to death – one in the town of Zarzalejo, north-west of Madrid, and the other in the eastern city of Calatayud. Two people travelling in a car were swept away by floods near the southern city of Malaga.

As snow fell on Madrid on Friday evening, a number of vehicles became stranded on a motorway near the capital.

The city’s Barajas airport has closed, along with a number of roads, and all trains to and from Madrid have been cancelled.

Firefighters were called in to assist drivers who had become stuck. In some areas the military were called in to help clear roads.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez urged people to stay at home and to follow the instructions of emergency services. King Felipe and Queen Letizia took to Twitter to urge “extreme caution against the risks of accumulation of ice and snow”.

The country’s AEMET weather agency said the snowfall was “exceptional and most likely historic”.

A number of people were seen making the most of the snowy scenery, walking through Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square.

Large parks in Madrid have since been closed as a precaution, AFP news agency reports.

One man was pictured skiing along the Gran Via, the capital’s famous shopping street.

In Cañada Real, the largest shanty town in western Europe, residents were seen creating a bonfire to keep warm.

The cold weather is set to continue beyond the weekend with temperatures in Madrid predicted to hit -12C on Thursday.


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Spain, UK reach ‘preliminary agreement’ that will see an end to the border with Gibraltar




The border that separates Gibraltar from La Línea de la Concepción, which is known in Spanish as La Verja and was closed for 13 years (1969 to 1982), will cease to exist in six months’ time. Spain and the United Kingdom have reached a “preliminary agreement” to avoid the British Overseas Territory from becoming a hard border of the European Union. The two delegations, headed by the Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya and her British counterpart Dominic Raab, were negotiating the deal late into Wednesday night, with just hours to go before Brexit becomes a reality, and the United Kingdom definitively leaves the European Union at midnight tonight.

According to the Spanish minister, who gave a press conference today from La Moncloa, the prime ministerial palace, Gibraltar will be joining the Schengen area, a European free-travel zone that is made up of 26 countries (22 from the EU, plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein), meaning that the border to enter the British Overseas Territory will no longer be at La Verja, but rather at Gibraltar’s port and airport.

During the so-called “implementation period,” which will last for four years, these border controls will be headed up by the European border agency Frontex, but Spain will be responsible for the Schengen rules being observed in Gibraltar. That means that the European agents will have to render account to the Spanish authorities regarding who is permitted to enter the area and the policy of conceding visas. Anyone traveling to Gibraltar from Spanish territory will not require a passport, but British arrivals will, given that the United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen area.

The deal, which sources from La Moncloa described as “historic,” has been subject to negotiations between Spanish and British delegations since June, with Gibraltarian representatives forming part of the latter. But a final sprint was needed to get it across the line ahead of the Brexit deadline. The text has already been sent to Brussels and must now be enshrined in a treaty between the UK and the EU, given that the European Commission is the competent authority on the issue. The deal would not have been possible had Spain not managed to secure a veto over the future relationship with Gibraltar during the Brexit negotiations.

The Spanish foreign minister highlighted the fact that the measures agreed with the United Kingdom will be adopted “without prejudice to the inalienable claims of both sides in terms of the sovereignty [of Gibraltar], which have been safeguarded.”

While the necessary steps are taken to finalize the treaty, something that is forecast to take six months, “arrangements that are allowed by Schengen to ease the controls at La Verja” will be applied, in order to ensure that mobility (which is already greatly limited due to the pandemic) be “as fluid as possible,” in the words of the minister.

González Laya did not offer details about how Spain would exercise its responsibility over the Gibraltar border, nor whether, after four years, Spanish police would be stationed in the port and the airport of The Rock, as the territory is commonly known. She only went so far as to say that at the end of this period, a round of consultation is planned, and that the role of Frontex is to “assist the Spanish authorities” and to serve as a “confidence builder” – that’s to say, dispel any misgivings on the part of the Gibraltarians.

As well as forming part of Schengen, Gibraltar will be able to benefit from other EU policies, such as a customs regime for the trade of goods, always with the intermediation and support of Spain, and guaranteeing loyal competition in terms of taxation, environmental issues and work relations. This will create a paradox whereby Gibraltar – 96% of whose inhabitants voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum – could be more integrated in the EU now that it is out of it than when the UK was part of the bloc, given that it was not part of Schengen, nor the customs union or common market.

In theory, the nearly 10,000 Spaniards who work in Gibraltar (two-thirds of the 15,000 cross-border workers, had their access via La Verja guaranteed, even if there had been no deal, provided they figured on a registry that would have let them come and go just by showing an ID card such as the Spanish DNI.

The problem is that a hard border would have seen the end of many of these jobs in Gibraltar, as well as depriving the nearby Spanish population of customers with high spending power. As such, on Monday, the mayors of eight Spanish municipalities in the neighboring area called on the governments in Madrid and London to reach an “urgent and positive” deal that would put the “interests of the citizens above any other aspect.”

For her part, González Laya said on Monday that Spain was willing to “raise La Verja” to facilitate the free circulation of people with Gibraltar, but warned that if there was no deal, it would be “the only place where there was a hard Brexit.”

The Rock was expressly excluded from the Brexit deal reached between the UK and the EU on December 24, meaning that its future was entirely dependent on the results of the negotiations between Madrid and London.

Via a statement, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab celebrated the deal, saying that “working side by side with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, and following intensive discussions with the Spanish government, we reached agreement on a political framework to form the basis of a separate treaty between the UK and the EU regarding Gibraltar.” In the meantime, he continued, “all sides are committed to mitigating the effects of the end of the Transition Period on Gibraltar, and in particular ensure border fluidity, which is clearly in the best interests of the people living on both sides.” Raab reiterated his government’s firm commitment to “Gibraltar and its sovereignty,” and thanked his Spanish counterpart for her “positive and constructive approach.” He concluded saying: “We have a warm and strong relationship with Spain, and we look forward to building on it in 2021.”

Writing via Twitter, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that the deal was the start of “a new era,” saying that the preliminary agreement will “allow for barriers to be eliminated and to move toward an area of shared prosperity.” He also thanked the negotiators from the Foreign Ministry.

British Prime Minister Borish Johnson also published a tweet on Thursday afternoon, welcoming the deal.

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