Spain Loosens Coronavirus Lockdown But Death Toll Races Past 17,000

MADRID (Reuters) -
A police officer holds protective face masks to distribute them to people at a metro station during the lockdown amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain, Monday. (Reuters/Susana Vera)

Spain, one of the countries worst hit by the global coronavirus epidemic, on Monday started to ease tough lockdown restrictions that have kept people confined to their homes for more than a month and put a brake on economic activity.

Spain‘s cumulative death toll from the coronavirus rose to 17,489 on Monday, up 517 from 16,972 on Sunday, the Health Ministry said. Confirmed cases totaled 169,496, up from 166,019 the previous day.

However, in a sign that the situation was taking a turn for the better, some businesses, including construction and manufacturing, were allowed to reopen.

But most of the population are still confined to their homes, and shops, bars and public spaces will remain closed until at least April 26.

People at main transport hubs were handed face masks as they went to work on Monday morning.

“The health of workers must be guaranteed. If this is minimally affected, the activity cannot restart,” Interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told Cadena Ser radio station.

Lockdown restrictions have helped slow a spiraling death rate that reached its peak in early April, but they have tested the resolve of people cooped up inside their homes.

Only a few commuters came in and out of the main entrance of Madrid’s usually bustling Atocha train station on Monday morning. Road traffic was light too, with mainly public buses passing by.

Police handed out millions of masks early in the morning across regions that are not observing a public holiday.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Sunday the decision to restart some sectors of the economy was taken after consulting a committee of scientific experts. Any further winding down would depend on gains made against the virus, he said.

“We are still far from victory, from the moment when we can pick up our normal lives again, but we have made the first decisive steps in the path towards victory,” Sanchez said.

However, some regional leaders criticized the moves, fearing a resurgence of the outbreak.

One company reopening, Burgos-based industrial group Nicolas Correa, said it would take measures to prioritize the health of its staff.

“We will continue to work in shifts, with staggered entries and exits to avoid concentrations of staff,” it said, adding that all workers would be provided with protective equipment.

European Central Bank Vice-President Luis de Guindos said Spain‘s reliance on tourism would likely leave it exposed to a worse recession than the rest of Europe.

The coronavirus is weighing heavily on the Spanish economy, with some 900,000 jobs lost since mid-March.

“We’re talking about the worst economic situation since the (1936-39 Spanish) Civil War,” the former Spanish economy minister said in Sunday’s La Vanguardia newspaper.

Traditional festivals have also been disrupted by the epidemic.