CORONAVIRUS

Spain allocates time slots for outdoor activity

Health Minister Salvador Illa explains the conditions under which adults may go out for walks and other exercise starting this weekend

Health Minister Salvador Illa at the news conference on Thursday.
Health Minister Salvador Illa at the news conference on Thursday.

Spanish health authorities on Thursday announced new rules for outdoor activity for long-confined citizens, and the time slots when each of these outings will be allowed. The announcement was the latest in the ongoing relaxation of Spain’s coronavirus confinement measures, which have been in place since March 14 and are among the strictest in the world.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Health Minister Salvador Illa said that starting at 6am on Saturday, adults may go out for individual exercise once a day, without making contact with third parties, and within their own municipality of residence with no distance limit. All kinds of sports are allowed as long as they are practiced individually.

But a Health Ministry order published on Friday in the Official Gazette (BOE) notes that people may not use a motor vehicle or public transportation to travel to the spot where they want to exercise.

Adults may go out on walks, either alone or with one other member of their household, as long as they remain within a one-kilometer radius of their home. But the government order underscores that people with symptoms of the coronavirus, those in quarantine, and residents of senior residences are not allowed out on public streets and spaces.

The government order underscores that people with symptoms of the coronavirus, those in quarantine, and residents of senior residences are not allowed out on public streets and spaces

Both walks and other exercises, such as running and cycling, must take place between 6am and 10am, or between 8pm and 11pm.

As for outings with children, which have been allowed since Sunday of last week, these will now have to take place between 12pm and 7pm.

People who need to go out with a caregiver and seniors over 70 years of age have their own time slots of 10am to 12pm and 7pm to 8pm.

Asked about the time limits for the new adult outings, the health minister only replied that an upcoming list of guidelines will clear up this issue and any others that might arise. The walks with children are still restricted to one hour a day, but Illa did not establish a clear time limit for adult activities despite queries from reporters. It was later confirmed that sporting activities such as running and cycling would not have the one-kilometer limit, but could not exceed the limits of each citizen’s municipality.

On Friday, Fernando Simón the director of the Health Ministry’s Coordination Center for Health Alerts, said that it is compatible for parents to go out to exercise in the morning and later go for a walk in the afternoon with their children.

With regard to dogs, the Health Ministry on Friday confirmed to the Spanish radio station Cadena SER that adults will be allowed to walk their pets in the allocated time slot for exercise, and to also take them with them when they go running. Dog walking will also be permitted when children are taking their trips out onto the street.

In municipalities with fewer than 5,000 residents, these time frames will not apply, and all activities may be conducted between 6am and 11pm, as “there is no risk of crowds forming,” said Illa.

Illa also announced another relaxation of the confinement measures on Thursday: people will be allowed to tend their plants in allotment and community gardens on a non-professional basis. This must be done individually, unless the person in question is accompanied by a dependant or a child.

“The underlying idea is to avoid having people coincide on the street, and to space out the activities,” explained Joan Ramón Villalbi, an epidemiologist and member of the Spanish Public Health and Health Administration Society. “It’s interesting, what’s more, because the timetable for individual sport minimizes the risk that, for example, a cyclist could crash into a pedestrian.”

The new rules will not allow for both parents to talk walks with their children. Villalbi said that there is still a need to minimize the risks. “It’s a toll that will have to be paid until May 11,” he said. “What the authorities are doing is to allow trips onto the street with the brakes still on. It’s a small risk but there are regions where we have seen cases of people in the intensive care unit [ICU] and the emergency room. This makes us think that there could be people who are getting infected without knowing it, and while there are certainly not many of them, and the probability of transmission is much lower than it was two months ago, the risk still exists.”

Magda Campins, head of Preventive Medicine at Vall d’Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, had a different opinion. When the idea of time slots for outdoor activities was first floated, she told EL PAÍS: “We shouldn’t be concerned about families going out together for walks because they are together at home as well. The important thing is that they maintain distance with other families. That’s why it’s important to go out at different times, to avoid crowds.”

The measures announced on Thursday will lead to scenarios in which, for example, in a household with two parents and a child, the adults will not be able to go out together at any time, since family outings are not allowed and someone will need to stay at home with the minor during the time frames when adults but not children are allowed out.

The new normal

The move is part of a broader scheme to gradually scale down one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. Announced on Tuesday, the Plan for the Transition to a New Normality is a four-phase program that envisions a gradual and asymmetric easing of restrictions that will not necessarily take place everywhere at the same time.

“The starting point for Madrid and Catalonia is a little more complicated than in other regions,” said Fernando Simón, head of Spain’s health emergency coordination center. “It is possible that measures will be delayed a bit longer there, although it will depend on how the epidemic evolves.”

The Spanish Health Ministry reported on Thursday that the number of daily coronavirus deaths has fallen to 268, the lowest figure since March 20 and down from a peak of 950 overnight fatalities on April 2. Spain has been under a strict lockdown since March 14, when Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared a state of alarm that he has been extending in two-week periods with congressional support.

On Monday, Illa met with regional health chiefs to discuss proposals for how outdoor activity should be regulated. Many of these regional leaders argued that time slots should be set in order to avoid crowds, after photos on Sunday showed families allegedly breaking social distancing measures. The government, however, insisted on Monday that no serious breaches were committed on the first day of children’s outings.

English version by Susana Urra.

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