FOCUS: Ski slopes open in Spain’s Catalonia despite pandemic

Skis and snowboards slide down the slopes of the Spanish ski resort of La Masella, which opened Monday with curbs to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus that has kept ski stations closed in many other European nations.

FOCUS: Ski slopes open in Spain's Catalonia despite pandemic
Pictures by Josep Lago / AFP

“I didn't think I could ski for the next two to three years. I was a bit worried but since it was Monday I thought there would be few people so I dared to come,” said 60-year-old Prisco Crespo.   

The main parking lot at the ski station set in the midst of a dense pine forest in the Spanish Pyrenees, just two hours by car from Barcelona, was full and queues formed to board ski lifts.

“We couldn't wait. We asked for the day off work, we left Barcelona at six in the morning and are here to spend the day,” said Ricard Pons, a 29-year-old warehouse worker who came with his girlfriend.

Most European nations have kept ski resorts shut over fears that crowds and apres-ski revelry could fuel the spread of Covid-19.   

In the Pyrenees, only ski resorts in Spain's northeastern Catalonia region have opened.

France and tiny Andorra have put off opening their resorts until after Christmas while Catalonia's neighbouring region of Aragon has still not set a date for when its slopes can open.   

Catalonia delayed the opening of its ski stations and there were doubts that they would be able to draw many customers because of virus restrictions  that complicate travel, especially on weekends.

“In the end we decided to open because mountain areas depend on ski, we are their economic engine,” Joaquim Alsina, the head of Catalan ski resort association ACEM, told AFP.

'Minimal risk'

To reduce the risk of infection, capacity is limited and passes are sold only online. Face masks are mandatory whenever you are not skiing.    

At La Masella signs warn skiers to stand apart while waiting for ski lifts while staff repeatedly asked people to wear face masks.    

“People are practising sports, they are outdoors, you don't see many crowds, people are using masks, gloves, glasses, they are super covered up,” said the commercial director of the ski resort, Maite Martin.

“I think there is minimal risk of infection,” she added.   

“It's really after skiing that people relax the measures a little bit more, when there is a risk.”

While she was pleased with the size of the turnout on the opening day, Martin refused to make a forecast for the rest of the season given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.   

The previous ski season at La Masella was cut short when the first wave of the pandemic hit Europe, forcing the resort to close early.

'Snow feeds us'

“Let's see if we can hold on until March,” said Conchi Marti Calvo, the owner of a small bar at the foot of La Masella's ski slopes that kept serving coffees and sandwiches during breakfast time.

“The whole valley needs the station to open so we can work,” the 43-year-old added, explaining she had hired just five employees this year instead of 11.

Restaurants, hotels and ski instructors have been anxiously waiting for the resorts to open, with many relying on the ski season to survive all year.   

Alsina, the head of the ski resort association ACEM, said some areas in the region rely on ski resorts for 70 percent of their economic activity.   

“Snow is what feeds us,” said ski instructor Kenia Leiva who rushed to not be late for her first class in nine months.



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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.