Reopening Spain’s nightlife: The step that many regions still don’t dare to take

The majority of the country’s territories are keeping bars and nightclubs closed. Experts say that the enclosed, poorly ventilated nature of these venues make them the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus

A bar in Madrid, in a file photo from June.
A bar in Madrid, in a file photo from June.getty
Pablo Linde

In Spain, the issue of nightlife has become the Rubicon that most of the country’s regions do not want to cross for fear of a spike in transmission of the coronavirus. Some territories, such as Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha, Andalusia and the Canary Islands, have reopened with restrictions, but the majority have opted to wait until they give the green light for places that the epidemiologists consider to be high risk: enclosed spaces, often badly ventilated, and where alcohol, a lack of inhibitions, music and singing create perfect conditions the circulation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Economically, the impact on the sector has been devastating, and protests among entrepreneurs in the sector have been growing as time has passed, and the current fifth wave of the pandemic retreats thanks to higher levels of vaccination, and the authorities continue to open up other activities, such as sporting events.

On Wednesday, the justice system ruled in favor of the Catalan government’s decision to keep the sector closed, despite some business owners demonstrating, and even announcing hunger strikes until they can reopen. Similar protests have been seen in other regions such as La Rioja and Murcia. One of the arguments is that a regulated sector is preferable to uncontrolled street drinking – known in Spanish as botellones – a phenomenon that is testing local councils to the limit. But the majority of Spain’s regional governments, for now, would prefer to be cautious and keep nightclubs and bars closed.

Pubs and nightclubs cannot restart their previous activity while there is risk of transmission: dancefloors cannot be used as such and drinks must be consumed at tables

The 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Spain is currently at 210, which is considered to be “high risk,” according to Health Ministry criteria. There is currently no common framework for nightlife as established by the central government, given the objections at the start of June from some regions for plans to establish blanket rules.

Spain’s regions are in charge of their approach to keeping the pandemic in check, hence the differences from territory to territory. In the Balearic Islands, for example, the authorities want the digital Covid certificate – which proves the bearer has been vaccinated, among other factors – to serve as a document necessary for entry to this type of establishment. But this measure has been struck down in other regions by the local courts, which must give their blessing to the measures that governments attempt to put in place. “There are sectors that are closed and this would be an opportunity for them, to guarantee safety in their spaces,” said last week Iago Negueruela, the Balearic tourism chief.

In the latest update to the “coordinated response to control the transmission of Covid-19,” known as the central government’s traffic light system, nightlife appears as an activity that is practically incompatible with the pandemic. According to the document, bars and nightclubs cannot restart their previous activity while there is risk of transmission: dancefloors cannot be used as such and drinks must be consumed at tables.

As business owners in the sector have repeatedly made clear, if there is no dancing, it will be difficult to open up nightclubs. According to Salvador Peiró, a specialist in preventive medicine and public health, control measures are practically useless in this kind of environment. “With capacity limits, ventilation and masks you can be inside, but this is completely incompatible with nightclubs and bars.”

Some of the measures that were agreed on at the start of June were focused on the summer season. In fact, the initial proposal from the Health Ministry – which was eventually withdrawn due to a lack of consensus – included lifting restrictions once 70% of the population had been vaccinated. This level of immunity was reached this week in Spain, but it has become a symbolic figure and will no longer mean herd immunity due to the emergence of the more-infectious delta variant of the virus.

A 'botellón' in Barcelona on August 27.joan Sánchez

Also at the start of June, before the fifth wave of the pandemic had taken hold in Spain, vaccination rates were much more modest, with less than 20% of the population with full protection from the vaccines. For these reasons, some of the experts consulted by EL PAÍS believe that the document should be updated with an approach that is more in tune with the current reality. However, among these recommendations and with the current levels of incidence, none of them are in favor of reopening nightlife, such as nightclubs, pubs and nighttime bars.

Fernando Rodríguez Artalejo, a public health professor at Madrid’s Autonomous University, sums it up: “In places where people come together and drink a lot, the criteria there [before reopening] is probably progressing further with the vaccination and lower rates [of infection]. When it’s time, in one or two months, we could free things up a lot more. Now would be too early.”

Risks of closed spaces

A number of specialists also question the argument about regulated environments versus botellones. José Martínez Olmos, a professor at the Andalusian Public Health School, believes that it is far from clear that opening up nightclubs would prevent people from drinking in the street. “There are no studies that say that there is one kind of infection in nightclubs and another in botellones, but from a public health perspective, closed spaces entail more risks than open ones,” he explains.

The debate over nightlife will last beyond the coming weeks. For Alberto Infante, professor at the National Health School, the pandemic has forced a rethink about the economic model based on contact and physical proximity. “We need to incentivize another kind of business,” he says. Infante suggests using the European funds that Spain will receive to transform the economy so that it is not so focused on tourism and leisure, including nightlife. “The government should consider this,” he says. “There is great uncertainty on the horizon, new variants, new pandemics that would make our economic model very vulnerable. We cannot continue to think that the solution to everything is to open up a bar.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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