CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus outbreak forces new area in Spain to reintroduce restrictions

Another part of Aragón has been moved back to the previous stage of the deescalation plan due to a spike in infections among fruit pickers

Fruit pickers in Fraga in the ‘comarca’ of Bajo Cinca, which has returned to Phase 2 of the coronavirus deescalation plan.
Fruit pickers in Fraga in the ‘comarca’ of Bajo Cinca, which has returned to Phase 2 of the coronavirus deescalation plan.JUAN BARBOSA / EL PAÍS

A coronavirus outbreak in Spain’s northeastern region of Aragón has forced regional authorities to take a new step back in the deescalation process. A day after moving three comarcas – administrative divisions smaller than a province – back to Phase 2 of the national deescalation plan, the regional government announced on Tuesday that the comarca of Bajo Aragón-Caspe would also return to an earlier stage. The move, aimed at curbing coronavirus contagions, comes in response to an outbreak detected among fruit pickers in Huesca province.

The four comarcas that are now under Phase 2 – Bajo Aragón-Caspe, Cinca Medio, Bajo Cinca and La Litera – have recorded 125 coronavirus cases in the past few days.

Health authorities warn the outbreak in Huesca could spread to the neighboring province of Lleida in Catalonia

Although no restrictions have been placed on movement, the regional government has recommended limiting travel to and from the affected areas. “Mobility between these comarcas is very easy, it’s daily and common. It also coincides with the fact that for the last few weeks we have seen a trickle of cases [in Bajo Aragón-Caspe] that is not perhaps as quantitatively similar to the other three comarcas, but which has remained steady these last few days,” said Francisco Javier Falo, the general director for public healthcare in Aragón.

Phase 2 means, among other things, that regional authorities can limit the capacity of stores to 40% and of bars and restaurants to 50%. Nightclubs and children’s playgrounds must remain closed, and swimming pools can only open at a third of capacity.

Authorities cannot reintroduce widespread restriction of movement, as this could only be done while Spain was under a state of alarm. These emergency powers expired on Sunday as Spain entered the “new normality” following a prolonged deescalation process and lockdown. The regional government of Aragón has instead urged citizens to limit their trips to and from these areas, and warned that if the situation gets worse, it could ask the central government for help introducing more restrictive measures. A public health law can be used to confine a small area such as a municipality, for example, without the need for the state of alarm, but this needs the approval of the central government. “If the situation worsens and we have to take more extreme measures, we will have to approach the central government,” said Sira Repollés, the chief of the regional health department.

The neighboring province of Lleida in Catalonia is also on high alert due to its proximity to the affected areas in Aragón and the fact that it also has an important farming sector. Fernando Simón, the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, warned on Monday that there was a risk of “the outbreak in Huesca spreading to Lleida, because there is a lot of exchange and contact.”

In a bid to stop the spread of the outbreak, health authorities in Lleida have tightened control of the movement of some fruit pickers. “We are in contact with the authorities in Aragón to identify the movement of the people who work there and live here [in Lleida] and to try to reduce this as much as possible. It is of benefit to both sides,” said Divina Farreny, the head of the healthcare area of Lleida.

Although there is no evidence of any coronavirus case from the Huesca outbreak crossing into Lleida, Farreny admitted this was “difficult to identify.” In Lleida, 30 people, mostly fruit pickers, have been placed in isolation in the Rambla Hotel, which is being used to accommodate people who cannot quarantine safely in their homes. Of those in isolation, seven have tested positive for Covid-19. In the farm school La Manreana de Juneda, which is also being used as a quarantine center, another 24 fruit pickers have tested positive.

The outbreak has been blamed on the working and housing conditions of the fruit pickers, most of whom are migrant workers with few resources. Social distancing rules are not always respected and many of the workers live in overcrowded homes where it is also difficult to maintain safety measures.

Pere Godoy, the head of epidemiological monitoring in the Lleida healthcare area, warns that in outbreaks like these, “complying with social distancing measures is key.” According to Godoy, agricultural businesses must understand that adhering to these rules “is profitable” for the company. “In certain communities, both local authorities and the business sector have to do more to enable mechanisms to reduce the risks [of contagion],” he said.

Lleida authorities also reported on Tuesday that 18 coronavirus cases had been detected in a senior home, with 13 residents and five workers infected. Four of the residents have been admitted to hospital.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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