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

Scenes of crowded streets in Madrid.
El País

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.”

Crowds on Gran Vía avenue in Madrid on Sunday.
Crowds on Gran Vía avenue in Madrid on Sunday.Olmo Calvo

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”

Christmas lights are turned on in Larios street in Málaga.
Christmas lights are turned on in Larios street in Málaga.Álex Zea (Europa Press)

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.

With reporting by Luis de Vega, Javier Martín Arroyo, Nacho Sánchez, Alfonso L. Congostrino and Cristina Vázquez.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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