FOCUS: How Spain’s curfew hasn’t stopped Madrileños partying

"If you don't open the door, we'll break it down," shouts a policeman, sparks flying through the night as a circular saw cuts through the chained back entrance of a Madrid bar.

FOCUS: How Spain's curfew hasn't stopped Madrileños partying
Photo by Baptiste MG on Unsplash

Elsewhere, police force open the rolling shutters of a popular cocktail bar and storm into the dimly-lit interior, where 36 people are drinking in the glow of neon bar signs. “Who's the owner?” barks a woman police officer. “Everyone line up with your papers in hand.”   

Although Madrid's nightlife has been shuttered since the summer, and a midnight curfew has emptied the streets since October, such raids have become a regular feature in the city.

While many European nations have languished under a second lockdown, Spain has chosen to rely on restrictions, with bars and restaurants in Madrid operating with a 50-percent capacity limit and private gatherings limited to six people.   

But in some places — as in other European countries — the party hasn't stopped, with people drinking, dancing and sweating together, up close and personal as if the pandemic never happened.

Some gather in bars for an after-hours lock-in, others have been invited to flats or houses rented for the weekend, or joined a rave-type event in a park or warehouse attracting hundreds of people, police say.

At most, masks are absent, capacity limits ignored and all other safety precautions checked at the door.

From lockdown to lock-ins

With the streets off-limits after midnight, house parties have become increasingly popular, Madrid police chief suprintendent Jose Luis Morcillo says.

“Although the immense majority are complying with the rules, there's a minority looking for alternative ways to have fun,” he told AFP.     

“The average age is around 30, so they are no longer young, but they are irresponsible.”

Often events are organised by club owners whose venues are closed but who reach out to their guest lists. Secrecy is key and an entrance fee is “normal”.   

“What's more scary than the situation we're living through with lockdowns, restrictions and fewer and fewer freedoms?” said one Halloween invitation with a 20-euro entrance fee and the venue to be confirmed on the day itself.

“Having 90 people in a flat implies risk.. people are very close together, dancing, not wearing masks, smoking and sometimes taking drugs,” Morcillo said.

Between late October, when a night curfew took effect, and mid-December, Madrid police have broken up 2,910 parties, charged 279 venues and penalised 7,816 people for not wearing a mask.

And the fines are not insignificant: €600 ($740) for just attending a party, €600 for not wearing a mask, and another €600 for smoking.   

For organisers, the top penalty is €600,0000 — which has happened with two events in Madrid's industrial outskirts.

But most parties are in homes, police say.

A fine mess

There were nine in the flat, playing music, having a beer and a smoke on the balcony when they spotted the police car, sending everyone into a panic.   

“When the police car appeared, three ran out. But one came back up with the police, so they knew at some point we were more than six so it was illegal,” said “Paloma”, an unemployed 29-year-old.

“The policeman said: 'There are two ways to do this, the good way or the bad way. Either you let me in or I get a warrant',” she said.

Eventually, they opened the door — but didn't get fined.

“Everybody was really nervous — they knew the police could have ramped up the fines, which would have been a nightmare for this nonsense.”   

Few people talk openly about parties, and none want to use their real name.   

“We had a party at our flat with about 15 people. That might seem selfish, but I don't see us changing something for the worse,” says “Oscar”, 29, who didn't want to be identified because his mum's name is on the lease.

And he's not worried about the police: he knows they can't enter without permission or a warrant, meaning “they can't fine you, because they can't count the people inside”.

'What about the metro?'

Like many in their twenties, he's unimpressed by the region's awareness campaign with huge billboards in the metro warning: “If you go to a party, the next stop could be the morgue.”

“You can't pretend that metro always being full of commuters is not a risk and that 15 of us being together in a flat is,” he scoffs.   

Experts say it's impossible to know exactly where infections occur, though anecdotal evidence points to private gatherings where people drop their guard — and their masks.

“We don't have real data that tells us exactly what percentage of infections happens… at parties, in bars or restaurants or taking public transport,” says Salvador Macip, a medic and researcher at Britain's Leicester University.

Although the epidemiological situation had improved in November, Spain has seen a rise in coronavirus infections over the past few days that could worsen with Christmas looming, making safety measures all the more crucial.

By AFP's Hazel Ward

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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.