CORONAVIRUS

Deescalation plans in Spain: Slower and stricter than those of its European neighbors

Wary of a new surge in coronavirus infections, the executive is keeping more restrictions in place than Italy or France

Preciados street in Madrid, normally packed with shoppers and tourists, deserted under the lockdown.
Preciados street in Madrid, normally packed with shoppers and tourists, deserted under the lockdown.Jaime Villanueva Sánchez /

Spain is going slower with its coronavirus deescalation process than its European neighbors. The pace is deliberate, as the government is wary of a new spike in infections in one of the world’s hardest-hit countries.

On June 3, Italy will open its borders to all travelers from the European Union and Schengen area, who will not need to self-quarantine. And France has decreed an end to the 14-day isolation period for citizens from European countries.

In Spain, borders will remain closed to tourists at least until late June, when restrictions on mobility within the country are expected to be eased.

While Spain’s minority government, made up of a coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the leftist Unidas Podemos, originally defended the need to save the summer tourism season, the fear of a new surge in Covid-19 contagion has led to a more restrictive approach to deescalation.

The country has been in lockdown since mid-March, when the executive decreed a state of alarm that has been extended in two-week periods. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called on Congress to approve a fifth extension until June 7.

What started out as one of the strictest confinements in the world is being gradually lifted through a four-phase plan applied asymmetrically across the country, where territories with lower transmission rates and better primary healthcare preparedness are moving ahead before others.

Opening borders

Sources in the Spanish executive said the prime minister is convinced that reopening the borders prematurely could negatively affect the downward trend in coronavirus deaths and infections of recent weeks.

“A comparison shows that some countries that applied deescalation measures earlier are now detecting spikes in contagion,” reads a document that was approved by the Spanish Cabinet.

And any surge in transmissions that might force the country to go back to stricter lockdown rules would be less well received by society than a delay in reopening the borders, said sources in the executive.

“It’s about adapting the border conditions to the reality of the country, about adding an additional layer of health security,” said a source at the Foreign Ministry. “It would be very difficult to explain to citizens that they cannot travel to another province, but that people coming from abroad can land anywhere they please.”

From an economic viewpoint, these sources said that in the mid-term, there will not be much difference between reopening borders in June or in July. The government is hoping that this year domestic tourism will revive an industry that contributes around 11% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and which is already reeling from the effects of the prolonged lockdown.

Central versus regional power

In Spain, the central and regional governments have openly argued about the economic effects of the confinement measures, with Madrid – which is governed by a center-right coalition – criticizing the government’s decision to keep the region in Phase 0 of the deescalation plan.

This is in contrast with Italy, where the executive of Giuseppe Conte has decided to devolve responsibility for loosening confinement to regional authorities. This move has partially eased criticism from far-right parties such as the League and Brothers of Italy, although it is unclear whether the political benefits will outweigh health ones: the scientific committee advising the prime minister opposed decentralizing deconfinement powers.

In Spain, the far-right party Vox has been applauding anti-government protests that have been taking place in Madrid’s wealthier neighborhoods, framing them as acts of freedom against an executive that is clinging to its emergency powers. Vox has also called nationwide demonstrations for this coming Saturday, asking people to show up in their cars instead of on foot in order to respect social-distancing rules.

Scaling back

Spain’s requirements for transitioning between deescalation phases is also stricter than those of its neighbors. In France, the confinement measures ended on May 11, and citizens may travel within a 100 kilometer radius or more, as long as they remain within their administrative département. Primary schools have reopened and so have factories and retail stores, although remote work is still recommended. So-called “green zones,” where the rate of infection is lower, can open parks and beaches, while “red zones” like Paris are under greater restrictions.

In Spain, most of the country except for Madrid, Barcelona and much of Castilla y León has moved from Phase 0 to Phase 1 of the four-phase deescalation plan, while a few islands are already in Phase 2. This involves some degree of social interaction and business activity, but many restrictions remain in place and travel between territories is still banned.

English version by Susana Urra.

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