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Spain calls for ‘common sense’ after Christmas shoppers throng the streets



Scenes of packed city centers over the weekend have raised alarm bells, with health authorities asking the public to act responsibly to prevent a new spike in coronavirus cases

Spain’s secretary of state for health, Silvia Calzón, called on the public on Monday to show “responsibility and prudence” after crowds flooded the streets at the weekend to go Christmas shopping and see the traditional festive lights go on. The packed scenes – seen in several cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Málaga – prompted Calzón to recommend that citizens “avoid crowds” in the lead-up to Christmas to avoid worsening the coronavirus situation in Spain. “This is not over,” she warned.

“We would like to make a call for responsibility and prudence,” said Calzón in a radio interview with Spanish station Canal Sur on Monday “It has taken a lot of work and sacrifice to flatten the curve.” The incidence rate of the coronavirus has been steadily falling across Spain, but health authorities warn it still remains at “very high” levels. Although the sharp rise in new cases seen after the summer holidays may have eased, experts warn that increased social gatherings and travel over the festive season could lead to a new spike in infections.

“We cannot forget how badly many families have suffered,” or the impact the virus has had “on the most vulnerable,” said Calzón. “If we like Christmas, let’s ensure that we are all here for next Christmas,” she added, arguing “it’s worth the sacrifice.”

The health official also called on citizens to use “common sense.” She recommended that the public hold gatherings outdoors and avoid crowds to limit the risk of possible contagion. Calzón said the Christmas period was “an especially dear time” but would be “special” this year in a bid to reduce contagions. “We have to focus on protecting those we most love,” she said. “Perhaps we have to sacrifice our way of socializing with lots of people from lots of different areas in order to enjoy more and protect more those we love, especially elderly people.”

With the festive season approaching, the Spanish Health Ministry has proposed a series of measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, namely limiting social gatherings to 10 people and setting a 1am curfew for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. But the final decision on what rules will be in place will fall to the regions. Calzón defended this position on Monday, arguing that regional governments “need to have the necessary autonomy” to set restrictions and adapt them to their “different epidemiological situations.”

Calzón said a group was working on designing “basic measures” that could be applied across Spain, adding that this plan would likely be discussed on Wednesday at the next meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System, which brings together central and regional health chiefs. The raft of measures is aimed at “sending a unified message to the public,” said Calzón, who admitted the restrictions are unlikely to be exactly the same in each region given the differences between each territory.

Packed streets in Madrid “expected”

In Madrid, the city center was packed this weekend with people who had come to take advantage of Black Friday shopping deals and to see the Christmas lights. In response to the crowded scenes, the deputy premier of the Madrid region, Ignacio Aguado, said on Monday that he would prefer for people to “be out on the street than at home, which is where there is more risk” of contagion. In an interview with the Spanish television station La Sexta, which was published by Europa Press, Aguado added: “I fear the concentration of people in enclosed spaces, people going out on the street is not the problem. The problem is in homes, which are hotspots, not on the street or on public transport.” Aguado argued the images of packed streets were “normal Christmas scenes.”

Madrid’s popular Preciados street and the landmark Puerta del Sol square were overwhelmed by crowds over the weekend, but sources from Madrid City Hall told Spanish news agency EFE that the large numbers had been “expected” by local authorities.

Last Friday, the local police force began a special Christmas operation, involving 75 to 100 officers who monitor the city center and decide whether or not to cut off pedestrian access to the streets surrounding Puerta del Sol. The mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, said more time was needed for police chiefs and experts to define if more restrictions need to be introduced ahead of the upcoming long weekends. December 8 is a national holiday in Spain, while December 7 is a holiday in all regions except Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia and the Basque Country. But he warned: “My advice to Madrileños is to not go to the city center.”

Málaga: “Let’s act as if we were infected”

Similar scenes were also seen in Málaga on Friday, when thousands of people packed into the city’s main avenue, Larios street, to see the Christmas lights go on. Málaga City Hall had not announced what time the lights would be switched on to prevent crowds from gathering, but that did not deter residents from flooding into the historical center. Police forces and volunteers from the Civil Protection service worked all evening to ensure that the public maintained safe distances and did not stop to take photos. Although the mayor of Málaga, Francisco de la Torre, did not directly mention the crowds, he did share a video on social media calling on the public to show “greater responsibility every day.” “Let’s act as if we were all infected: face masks, hand washing, social distancing, avoid transmitting to others the terribleness of an infection,” he said in the video. Local authorities have suspended the traditional light and sound displays in Larios street to prevent crowds and will instead use a single track of Christmas carols.

Valencia recommends staggering shopping

In Valencia, thousands of shoppers descended upon stores for Black Friday discounts, with long lines of people waiting at entrances, especially in smaller establishments, where staff were at the doors to monitor capacity. In the main shopping strip, patient buyers waited to enter stores in search of a deal. “Black Friday has shown the efficiency of the measures introduced, juggling the increase in crowds with strict adherence to health measures,” said Joaquín Cerveró, the spokesperson of the National Association of Large Distribution Companies (ANGED) in Valencia. According to Cerveró, “the early beginning of sales helped more staggered visits to shops, preventing the crowds of other years.” The premier of Valencia, Ximo Puig, has recommended that citizens make their purchases early and in stages to avoid crowds.

Seville suspends light show

The city center of Seville, in the southern Andalusia region, was also crowded on Saturday. In a bid to prevent further crowding, Seville City Hall has suspended all special light and music shows. Local authorities have also decided to delay turning on its Christmas lights “based on the experience of other cities,” according to municipal sources. These sources say the decorative lights will be turned on without prior notice during or after the upcoming long weekend. Currently, in Andalusia all non-essential businesses must close at 6pm. If these rules change, Seville City Hall has said it will introduce measures to prevent crowds.

No safe distances at Barcelona beach bars

Under the restrictions introduced by the Catalan regional government, tables at bars and restaurants must be at least two meters apart. But many of the bars that line Barcelona’s beach decided last weekend to ignore these rules in order to be able to accept more patrons. The local police did not fine any of these establishments, but they did remove 323 people from outdoor drinking sessions – known in Spain as botellones – and fined 143 people for not wearing a face mask and 384 for breaking the curfew.

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Catalan regional election to be held on February 14, court confirms




Convicted leaders of the 2017 secession attempt in Catalonia who are serving time in regional prisons walked out on Friday after the Catalan government granted them a more open regime. Approval of the tercer grado, which allows prisoners to spend only nights in prison, coincided with the start of an election campaign in Spain’s northeastern region.

Also on Friday, the High Court of Catalonia (TSJC) confirmed that an upcoming regional election will take place on February 14, not on May 30, ending weeks of uncertainty over the date of the polls.

The Catalan government had sought to postpone the original date on the grounds that the coronavirus crisis would make it difficult for many people to vote while staying safe. Critics said the date change was politically motivated and unlawful.

The TSJC court had provisionally upheld an appeal against the change, and on Friday it confirmed this decision, which could still be challenged before the Supreme Court but would not alter the election date.

Released prisoners

The separatist leaders on a more flexible regime will now be able to take part in their own parties’ campaign events if they wish to.

Dolors Bassa, who was a Cabinet member at the time of the unilateral independence declaration of October 2017, was the first of the group to walk out of prison on Friday. After leaving the women’s facility of Puig de les Basses in Figueres (Girona) at around 8.45am, she urged sympathizers to go vote on February 14 “to win again.”

At 10.30am, Lledoners prison in Barcelona released Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, leaders of two civil society groups convicted of participating in the breakaway attempt, and the former Cabinet members Oriol Junqueras, Raül Romeva, Jordi Turull, Joaquim Forn and Josep Rull. The group emerged carrying a sign calling for “amnesty.” The only member of the group to remain in prison is former Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell, who is still awaiting a decision.

All nine were convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds by Spain’s Supreme Court and are serving sentences ranging from nine to 13 years. The Catalan government granted them tercer grado status once before last year, but the move was struck down by the Supreme Court in December and the group returned to prison. However, eligibility for this regime undergoes review every six months, and the regional executive, which is headed by a separatist coalition, has again granted them this status.

Prosecutors are planning to appeal the decision, but the timing of legal procedures means that the separatist leaders will be on daytime prison leave for much of the election campaign, if not all of it. While none of them are running as candidates, their presence could help energize pro-independence voters. Inversely, if they were sent back to prison it would provide fuel to the movement’s claims of political repression.

Election dates

Secessionists are also framing the legal tussle over the election date as further proof of alleged meddling in Catalonia’s political and institutional life.

In a rare agreement between separatist and conservative parties, the postponement to May had been backed by all political groups in the regional parliament except for the Catalan Socialists (PSC) – the Catalan branch of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) – who had insisted on preserving the February date.

Salvador Illa, the Spanish health minister until this week, has stepped down to run for the regional premiership with the PSC, and a recent poll by the state-funded Center for Sociological Studies (CIS) research center suggested the possibility of a technical tie between the PSC and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), one of the two partners in the Catalan government coalition.

Both ERC and its partner Together for Catalonia believe that the PSOE is behind the legal challenge to the May postponement, and that the real reason is a desire to make the most of the impact on public opinion from the news that the high-profile Illa will be the Socialist nominee to lead the region.

But a more recent poll by the Catalan government’s Center for Opinion Studies (CEO) shows ERC winning on February 14 with 34 to 35 seats in the regional parliament, followed by Together for Catalonia with 32 to 34. This would ensure the separatist bloc’s absolute majority in the 135-strong house with 51.2% of the vote.

The election will seek to bring stability to a government that’s been under an acting leader, Pere Aragonés, ever since September, when the Spanish Supreme Court upheld an 18-month ban from public office against Quim Torra in connection with violations of institutional neutrality during an earlier election campaign.

After Catalans go to the polls, Spaniards are expecting a two-year period of rest in a country that has been through four national elections, a European vote, regional and municipal polls, and two no-confidence motions in parliament since 2015.

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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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