Spaniards hunkered down in silent cities on Sunday with children’s playgrounds blocked off with police tape, after the government imposed sudden, severe restrictions on public life and the coronavirus death toll more than doubled overnight.
Spain, the second-worst affected European country after Italy, on Saturday ordered its 47 million citizens to stay indoors except for necessary outings such as buying food and medicine. Social gatherings are banned.
The government’s official coronavirus death toll rose by 152 overnight to 288. The number infected rose by 2,000 new cases to 7,753.
Among the high-profile figures to test positive were the prime minister’s wife, two cabinet ministers and five players of top-flight soccer club Valencia.
The sudden Spanish lockdown, along with similarly abrupt moves to curtail public life in France, have astonished Western Europe this weekend, as countries follow Italy in imposing restrictions unseen in peacetime.
Public places from city streets to beaches across Spain were deserted, with a strengthened presence of police, many wearing latex gloves and facemasks, and some using drones to ensure people complied with the emergency measures.
People formed orderly queues outside supermarkets in Madrid on Sunday, keeping at a distance from each other. A security guard with a face mask let shoppers in two by two.
All that could be heard on the empty streets of Madrid was the sound of families behind shuttered windows. People played video games, watched TV and sat out on balconies.
All major newspapers carried a wrapper emblazoned with a government-promoted slogan “Together we’ll stop this virus”. Newspapers reported that police could issue on-the-spot fines of hundreds of euros for those who fail to follow the rules.
The Ministry of Defense on Sunday deployed its Military Emergencies Units, usually tasked with providing disaster relief, in cities including Madrid, Valencia, Seville and Las Palmas in Tenerife.
Bars, restaurants and shops selling non-essential items are shut for 15 days as the country enters a state of emergency. Schools are shut, keeping millions of children at home.
Hairdressers however, who are allowed to remain open, have urged the government to order them to shut, a move which could help them get economic support, as well as allow them to meet safety rules.
“It is impossible for us to maintain a safe distance of at least one meter recommended by the Health Ministry,” said Antonio Jaumandreu, of Spanish hairdressing council CONEPE.
Madrid’s regional chief Isabel Diaz Ayuso said authorities would order hairdressers to close in Madrid because she would “prefer people to have dirty hair but be alive”.
In a further blow to Spain’s economically vital tourist industry, popular Easter processions have been canceled.
Ford said on Sunday it would shut its Spanish plant in the eastern region of Valencia for one week starting on Monday after three employees tested positive for coronavirus. It is one of Ford’s largest outside the United States and employs over 7,000 people.
Britain on Sunday advised its citizens against all but essential travel to Spain. Around 4,400 inbound flights to Spain have been canceled for the second half of March, the Spanish airlines association said on Thursday.
“I hope it ends soon so I can go back to work,” said 22-year-old airport worker Fabricio, who declined to give his surname, waiting to make a money transfer in central Madrid.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday the emergency measures would have a major impact on citizens and businesses, but promised the government would work to lessen the blow.
Spain, where more than half of jobs are dependent on small or medium-sized companies, already has one of the developed world’s highest unemployment rates.
“This city depends on tourism – what with all the bars and restaurants and shops – this is really going to economically damage many businesses,” said 52-year-old Leonel Sanchez, out to buy food on Madrid’s main thoroughfare, Gran Via.