Covid-19 deals major blow to Spain’s bullfighting season

Spain's majestic 'toros' draw thousands to the bullrings every year, but the country's Covid-19 lockdown has wrecked the 2020 bullfighting season and condemned many of the animals to the abattoir.

Covid-19 deals major blow to Spain's bullfighting season
Photo: AFP

Bullfighting has long been a lightning-rod issue, pitting animal rights activists who argue that the practice is cruel and should banned against traditionalists who say it should be preserved as a vital part of cultural heritage.

Whatever the ethical issues, bullfighting thrives only when there are huge crowds to watch the spectacle involving a burly, half-tonne beast whose upkeep is costly and whose lifespan is limited.

“It's a disaster for bullfighting,” Juan Pedro Domecq Morenes told AFP from his Lo Alvaro breeding farm in the southern Andalucia region, who had bulls entered in five fights cancelled in the last few weeks.

The nationwide lockdown imposed to slow the spread of the epidemic, under which the nation's 47 million population has been forced to stay home, and the social distancing to come in the next few months have spelt disaster for the bullfighting season, which runs from March to October.

Everyone is out of work, from the bullfighters to the banderilleros who throw coloured darts and the mounted riders who carry lances. Both breeders and businessmen describe the shutdown as a catastrophe for a sector that puts on 20,000 events a year, both fights and street festivals.

But the viability of these prized animals as fighters is short-lived: to enter the arena as a “toro bravo” they can be no more than six years old — or seven to join a street festival.

Raising a fighting bull costs a breeder between €4,000 and 5,000 ($4,400 and $5,500), but 90 percent of the investment can be recouped by selling him for a show.

A blow for breeders

But if the bull ends up being sold to the slaughterhouse, breeders will only see a 10 percent return on investment, a ruinous alternative but the only option if they don't want to keep on feeding an animal they can no longer rely on to turn a profit.

“Your income is reduced to nothing, there are only expenses and this is not like a factory where you can just stop production, because you have to keep feeding and looking after the bull,” says Domecq.

He estimates that between 30 and 40 of his bulls will end up going to the abattoir.

For now, he has kept on eight workers at his farm, giving them alternative tasks like raising pigs, but if there is no fighting season, he believes he will lose up to 600,000 euros.

In a statement, the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders, which represents some 345 breeding ranches, said the industry could lose more than 77 million euros.

And it could have “a devastating effect” on bull breeding farms, which generate thousands of jobs both direct and indirect in sparsely populated areas of rural Spain, the union said.

Lucrative business

From a business perspective, the situation is “quite drastic”, says Simon Casas, a former French matador who runs the bullrings in Madrid, Valencia and Alicante and is president of ANOET, a national association representing bullfight organisers.

He pointed to the impact on cities of the cancellation of large festivals with events involving bulls, like Valencia's Fallas festival in March, the Seville Festival in April or the axing of Spain's best-known bull-running festival in Pamplona in July.

Calling off bullfights, he said, would have a knock-on effect that would be “very significant economically because when you have bullfights, you have festivals and festivals provide the economic support for many important activities like tourism, restaurants, hotels”.

For entrepreneurs in Spain's bullfighting business, the losses could stack up to as much as 700 million euros, said Casas who also runs the arena in the French city of Nimes.

'An armchair bullfighter'

Given the crisis, the Breeders' Union has called on the government for both “direct assistance” and other measures like lowering VAT on the sale price of a fighting bull for celebrations, asking that it be brought down from 21 percent to just 10 percent.

But the most important thing, according to Casas, is that the banks provide liquidity in order to avoid “permanent job losses” thereby allowing businesses to “keep ticking over until the renewal of activity”.

For now, the culture ministry has met industry representatives and told AFP it was working to adapt general support measures announced by the government to the needs of the sector, such as bank loan guarantees or subsidised temporary layoff schemes.

But Domecq fears that many breeding farms will simply disappear and breeders will need to “reinvent themselves” by promoting tours of the farms to show off the fighting bulls “as the cultural attraction that they are”.

A sense of despondency is setting in all round with matador Cayetano Rivera Ordonez telling radio Cope that staying home had turned him into “an armchair bullfighter”.

Casas said he felt lost with the season ruined and after temporarily laying off 500 staff at Madrid's Ventas bullring.

Despite everything, he remains hopeful.

Because in the end, when all coronavirus chaos is over, “people will need to enjoy themselves,” he says.

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.