CORONAVIRUS

First day of public smoking ban in Spain’s Galicia: ‘The measure benefits everyone’

EL PAÍS speaks to smokers and non-smokers alike about their opinions on the new restrictions aimed at curbing coronavirus contagion in the northwestern region

A woman smokes at a sidewalk cafe in Galicia, which has banned smoking in all public spaces when social distancing measures cannot be respected.
A woman smokes at a sidewalk cafe in Galicia, which has banned smoking in all public spaces when social distancing measures cannot be respected.Carlos Castro / Europa Press
Sanxenxo (Pontevedra) - 14 Aug 2020 - 14:57 CEST

It smells of the sea and coffee in the outdoor cafes nestled along the seafront promenade in Sanxenxo, a municipality in Pontevedra province in Galicia. As dusk sets in, a rising plume of cigarette smoke tries, without too much success, to compete with the mist covering the other side of the estuary.

A pair of doctors from Asturias complains to Cristina, the woman smoking. “Mister, I am not going to put out the cigarette,” she replies. “Don’t then, but it’s doing harm,” one of the doctors replies.

Given the number of people, it is impossible to meet social-distancing rules, but most people are receptive
Officer in Sanxenxo

In Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia, lighting a cigarette in a public space can now also spark a heated exchange of words. Smoking on the street or in a sidewalk cafe is banned if social-distancing measures cannot be respected. The Galician regional government announced the new rule on Thursday in a bid to curb coronavirus contagion. The Canary Islands have also introduced restrictions on smoking after 23 Covid-19 outbreaks were detected, and on Friday the Health Ministry put the measure into place across the entire territory.

The restrictions are in line with recommendations from the Public Health Commission for the National Health System, which warn that smoking or vaping increase the risk of coronavirus infection. When exhaling smoke, the smoker projects droplets, as well as the habit requiring the manipulation of face masks and bringing the fingers to the mouth after touching the cigarette.

In Galicia, the restrictions on smoking in public areas have been widely welcomed, even by smokers. But implementing the measure is posing a challenge, given there is no video assistant referee on hand to determine whether a person is smoking within or outside the recommended two-meter distance.

Back at the cafe in Sanxenxo, the patrons continue to argue about this issue. “Go home and you won’t have any problem,” Antonio, one of the doctors, tells Cristina, who is continuing to smoke at the next table. “Why don’t you go to another bar for a coffee?” she contests in a loud voice.

In the end, the doctors leave. Before they go, the 60-year-old pair admit that they used to enjoy smoking some years ago and complain that the restrictions are not as clear as they should be.

Cristina is also in favor of the new rules, but she wants to score more points in front of her two small children with the oft-repeated argument: “Smokers are the new lepers.” She lights another cigarette, and no one says anything.

“Prevention is good”

In Galicia, lots of people are smoking, but nobody is breaking the government orders. The rules are being respected, yet cigarette butts continue to pile up in ashtrays in bars. There’s a simple reason for this contradiction: in theory, tables are placed at a safe distance apart, meaning smokers are not breaking the rules if they pull out a cigarette. At least that is the argument used by most of the waiters when asked by patrons if they can smoke. Lorenzo, a 51-year-old from Madrid, raised that very question, before taking a drag on his e-cigarette. He would like the same restrictions rolled out in Madrid: “All prevention is good.”

José, the owner of the restaurants, disagrees that the smoking ban will scare away patrons. “It benefits everyone, especially those of us who work in hostelry,” he says. In this establishment, now half-empty after lunchtime, a ruler is not needed to know that the coronavirus safe distances are being scrupulously met.

Enforcing the restrictions is more difficult on the street, where a pair of police officers are on alert to anyone who may try to break the rules. So far, they have not issued any fines. “Given the number of people, it is impossible to meet social distancing rules, but most people are receptive,” says one of the officers. Not one single smoker is seen on the seafront promenade in Sanxenxo.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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