coronavirus

Spain details new system of coronavirus restrictions to be applied until 70% of population is vaccinated

Despite opposition from some regions, the ‘traffic light’ measures – including early closing hours and capacity limits for bars and restaurants – will be obligatory across the country

Patrons leave a bar in Barcelona during a coronavirus clinical trial on May 20.
Patrons leave a bar in Barcelona during a coronavirus clinical trial on May 20.Kike Rincón / Europa Press

The Spanish Health Ministry and regional authorities on Wednesday approved a traffic light system to determine coronavirus restrictions based on an area’s epidemiological situation. This set of common criteria is to be applied until 70% of the population and all over-50s are vaccinated against Covid-19.

The traffic light system categorizes risk as extreme, high, medium, low and new normality based on data points such as the seven-day and 14-day incidence rate, and the percentage of hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) beds occupied by Covid-19 patients. The system, which applies to areas with more than 10,000 inhabitants, then recommends different restrictions based on the level of risk. Up until now, this has been used just as a guide. But on Wednesday, the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System (CISNS), which brings together health chiefs from the central and regional governments, voted to make it legally binding.

This means that the regions – which are in charge of controlling the pandemic as well as the Covid-19 vaccination drive – must follow the rules set out by the system. For example, even in a low-risk scenario, nighttime venues must close at 3am and only a maximum of 10 people are allowed to a table in sidewalk cafés. Catalonia, Madrid, Andalusia, Galicia, Murcia and the Basque Country have opposed the mandatory condition of the measures, which will come into force soon, once they are published in the Official State Gazette (BOE). These regions are home to 29.5 million people – more than half Spain’s population of 47.5 million. Castilla y León and the North African exclave city of Melilla also abstained from the vote.

According to the latest figures from the Health Ministry, 18,426,204 people in Spain have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine – 38.8% of the population. Meanwhile, 9,679,187 people have got the full protection offered by the immunization – 20.4%. The government has set the target of vaccinating 70% of the population by the end of the summer, a target that is on track assuming there are no setbacks such as interruptions to supply. The Health Ministry on Wednesday reported 4,984 new coronavirus infections and added 66 fatalities to the overall death toll. The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants, meanwhile, fell a further two points to 118.

The new rules agreed on Wednesday, and which will be approved via a Declaration of Coordinated Action (DAC), may lead to legal conflicts between the Health Ministry and some regional governments. Madrid has already announced that it will follow its own measures – not those outlined by the traffic light system. In a message posted on Twitter, Madrid premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso said: “Hospitality establishments are safe spaces and our allies to overcoming this crisis. They cannot pay for the inefficiency of the Sánchez government,” in reference to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez who leads a coalition government made up of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos.

Madrid has been at loggerheads with the central government over the reach of coronavirus restrictions since the health crisis began. When the CISNS agreed last October that areas at certain risk levels should be placed under perimetral lockdown – a decision that affected 10 municipalities in Madrid – the Ayuso government applied the restrictions, but challenged them in court. When a judge ruled in the region’s favor, the central government was forced to declare a state of alarm in the region to ensure the coronavirus restrictions were followed. Madrid also opposed the coronavirus restrictions approved by CISNS for the Christmas vacations and Easter break, such as limits on travel and social gatherings, but did eventually adhere to them.

At the end of the CISNS meeting on Wednesday, Health Minister Carolina Darias reiterated that it was mandatory for the regions to follow the measures approved by the council. “It is very important to be at a low [risk] level, not only so that we are safer and the virus is spread less, but also so that we can start entering the new normality,” she said. “We have to learn from the lessons learned. We know what happened last summer [when increased social activity led to a second wave of the virus]. What’s important is finishing off what we are achieving and reaching incidence rates below 50 [cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the threshold for low risk].”

The measures approved will affect Spain’s 17 regions differently, depending on what restrictions are already in place in each territory and their contagion rates. While some regions will be able to ease restrictions, others will have to toughen them. In Madrid, for example, the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants is 165, a data point, among others, that places it in the high-risk category. Despite this, the restrictions in the region correspond to those in the “new normality” category, i.e. regions where the incidence rate is 25 cases.

Andalusia allowed nighttime venues to reopen until 2am after the state of alarm came to an end on May 9. But these venues will have to close once the new rules are published in the BOE, given that the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the region now stands at 177 and is continuing to rise. On the other hand, Valencia, which is in a low-risk scenario, could already allow nighttime venues to open until 3am. Hospitality establishments, however, will still need to shut by 10pm until next week.

One of the mandatory rules that must be applied regardless of the risk level is the ban on smoking when a two-meter distance from other people cannot be respected. This ban also applies to water pipes, hookahs and other ways of inhaling tobacco.

Here is an overview of the main coronavirus restrictions set down by the traffic-light system.

Nightlife

Low risk and new normality. Indoors, the maximum capacity is 50%. Outdoor areas will be allowed to operate at full capacity, provided that the seats between different tables are 1.5 meters apart. The consumption of food and drinks, both inside and outside, will have to take place while seated at tables, with the same safe distance. The tables will have a limit of six people inside and 10 outside. Closing time will be 3am at the latest, and registers will be introduced to ensure that patrons can be traced should a coronavirus case be detected.

Medium risk. If the progress of the health crisis is favorable, closing time will be at 2am and the same measures for the lower risk scenario will be adopted, apart from a limit of a third of capacity inside.

High and very high risk. These establishments will be closed.

A sidewalk café in Valencia.
A sidewalk café in Valencia.Ana Escobar / EFE

Bars and restaurants

New normality. The permitted capacity will be 50% inside with the option of an extra 10% if risk-control measures are introduced that guarantee high levels of ventilation and air-quality control. Tables in outdoor areas can be fully occupied provided that the distance between chairs at different tables is at least 1.5 meters. Service and consumption at the bar are allowed, provided the aforementioned distance is respected. Six people can share a table inside, and 10 outside. Closing time will be 1am and service will cease one hour previously.

Low risk. The same measures as in the new normality, but with a distance of two meters between tables.

Medium risk. Inside, the same measures as low risk, but with a limit of a third of capacity. Outside, a maximum of 75% and six people per table.

High risk. Indoor areas will be closed and the same measures will be applied outside as for medium risk.

Very high risk. Outdoor capacity limited to 50% and limits on opening times, with groups of patrons separated and a maximum of four people per table. If the trend is rising and exceeds 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, establishments must close, only offering takeaway or delivery for consumption at home.

Open-air events

New normality. A maximum of 10,000 people. Independent sectors of no more than 1,000 people must be established, with safety measures being observed at all times. Transit areas between these sectors will be at least two meters wide. Smoking will not be permitted, nor the use of electronic cigarettes, in areas dedicated to the public. Maximum capacity of 50%, guaranteeing a useable area of 1.5 square meters per person, and eating and drinking will not be allowed in the public areas.

Low risk. The same measures as previously described, but with a maximum of 5,000 people and space of 2.25 square meters.

High risk. A maximum of 2,500 people. If possible, independent sectors of no more than 500 people will be established. Capacity will be limited to 30% and the area per person will be three square meters. Consumption of food and drink will be prohibited.

Very high risk. No events with large crowds will be allowed.

Education centers

Primary and secondary school, vocational training. These centers will remain open during the entire school year, “ensuring there are canteen services as well as out-of-hours study support for minors with special needs or who belong to socially vulnerable people,” according to the document, to which EL PAÍS had access on Tuesday. If there are outbreaks or the transmission of the virus runs out of control, “mixed in-person and remote education will be considered” before the center is closed, or “changes to the timetable that will allow for greater limits on contacts.”

Universities. The agreement only stipulates “distance learning as far as possible” for university teaching under alert level 4, and for the rest of the levels the same recommendations will be in place as for 2020 to 2021 – i.e. the use of masks, a Covid coordinator, contact tracing, quarantines for those with symptoms and ventilation of closed spaces, among other measures.

For all centers. All of the prevention measures set out by the ministry will be applied in all schools and universities. These include limiting contacts, maintaining social distancing, creating bubbles, handwashing and mask use, regular ventilation of indoor areas and students with symptoms staying at home.

English version by Simon Hunter and Melissa Kitson.

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