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STATE OF ALARM

‘A lot of emotions’: Spain ends Covid state of alarm

Spain has lifted a state of emergency in place since October to fight the pandemic, allowing Spaniards to travel between regions for the first time in months.

'A lot of emotions': Spain ends Covid state of alarm
People on the beach on Barcelona in April 2021. PAU BARRENA / AFP

“It’s like New Year’s,” said 28-year-old Oriol Corbella in Barcelona, where the lifting of the curfew was met with shouts, applause and music.

“We’re getting a bit of normality back, of freedom, but we have to keep in mind that the virus is still around,” he added.

“I was fed up with not being able to get out of Madrid,” jewellery designer Blaca Valls told AFP on Saturday, echoing the relief of many in the country over the easing of restrictions.

“I felt frustrated, locked down, with no freedom,” added the 46-year-old who plans to go to Galicia, in northwest Spain, next weekend to celebrate a birthday.

Argentina Enriquez, a 37-year-old Mexican student, said she was impatiently waiting to head to the countryside to enjoy barbecues with friends, play the guitar and go for walks.

“Just being together… a lot of emotions,” she said.

Although the emergency measure, which expired at midnight will lead to more freedoms, it is a headache for the country’s 17 regional governments responsible for health care.

The state of emergency provided them with a legal framework to impose measures — such as nighttime curfews or a ban on non-essential travel between regions — that limited freedoms.

Except for a few days over Christmas when the restrictions were lifted, people have not been able to travel to other regions, go on holiday, or see family.

Discouraged by the surge in infections after Christmas, the authorities did not loosen internal travel restrictions during Easter week, normally a peak travel period in Spain.

But what really angered Spaniards was the fact that foreign tourists were able to pour into the country on holiday while they were banned from travelling to the beach or visiting loved ones.

While intra-regional travel bans have ended and curfews have been lifted, not all of the restrictions are being relaxed in Spain, one of Europe’s hardest-hit nations with nearly 79,000 deaths and 3.5 million infections.

Differing legal views

Regions can still restrict opening hours and impose capacity limits in bars and restaurants.

They can also seek court approval for stricter measures such as reimposing curfews, capping the number allowed at home gatherings or extending a ban on internal travel.

But the courts have offered different rulings, leading to a patchwork of measures across the country.

A court in the eastern Valencia region approved a midnight-to-6:00 am curfew, while the top court in the northern Basque Country said the area could not keep its nighttime curfew.

READ MORE: What are the post state of alarm restrictions in each region in Spain?

To avoid this scenario, several regions have lobbied Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government to extend the emergency.

But his administration has refused, saying the measures could not remain in place indefinitely, pointing out that the infection rate was stable and that Spain’s vaccination programme was progressing rapidly.

Even so, it passed a decree allowing regions the right to appeal to the Supreme Court if a local court strikes down a proposed measure.

At the head of a minority government, Sanchez had faced an uphill struggle to cobble together enough support to approve an extension of the state of emergency.

Train ticket sales up

State-owned rail operator Renfe says ticket sales for next week are up 13 percent over the last seven days.

But after more than a year of restrictions, and with the weather turning hot and sunny, the authorities have warned people against letting down their guard.

Spaniards must be careful “not to get the wrong impression about what ending the state of emergency means… it doesn’t mean an end to the restrictions,” the health ministry’s emergencies coordinator Fernando Simon
said on Thursday.

Everyone must continue to behave responsibly, he insisted.

“Nothing can be ruled out in terms of the evolution of the pandemic.”

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FACE MASKS

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

The Spanish government's health experts have agreed not to review face mask usage on public transport until March 2023, a new report has found, by which stage almost a whole year will have passed since other face mask rules were lifted.

Face masks to remain mandatory on public transport in Spain until March 2023

Although masks haven’t been mandatory in indoor public settings (except hospitals, pharmacies, care homes and other health-related centres) since April 20th 2022, face coverings must still be worn on public transport in Spain, such as on buses, planes, taxis, metro carriages and trains.

According to a report published in Spanish news site Voz Populi, Spain’s Emergency Unit has agreed not to review Spain’s face mask rules until March 2023, even though all other Covid-19 domestic and travel restrictions were lifted before the summer of 2022.

The article, which cites internal sources from Spain’s government, adds that the country’s Public Health Commission (a body which advises Spain’s Health Ministry on which measures to introduce) has reportedly agreed to shelve any possible changes until March, and as things stand keep the rule in place “for an indefinite time” as “it is not the right time to remove masks due to the arrival of winter”.

The Health Ministry, however, argues that no fixed date for reviewing face mask legislation has been set.

“We’re taking the German approach,” the Emergency Unit source told Voz Populi about the fact that Germany is the only other country in Europe with similar mask-wearing rules to Spain.

On October 1st, new measures were brought into force in Germany stating that passengers over the age of 14 must wear FFP2 masks on long-distance trains rather than surgical ones, with the German government saying it will not review the legislation until April 2023.

Fernando Simón, Spain’s Health Emergencies chief, told journalists recently that “it’s okay to wait a little bit to see how the disease evolves” before making a decision regarding the complete removal of face masks.

However, if Spanish health experts are indeed looking to follow in the footsteps of Germany, there is even a possibility that the return of face masks to all indoor public settings this winter could happen, or at least a debate about it. 

An increase in Covid and flu cases that’s overburdened hospitals this autumn, as well as the emergence of the new Omicron subvariant BQ.1, has resulted in German authorities considering whether they should bring back old Covid-19 restrictions for the winter months.

Spain is also starting to see an increase in Covid and flu infections, and talk of an eighth coronavirus wave is rumbling in the background, but there has been no mention yet by Health Ministry representatives of a possible return to indoor face mask wearing across the board.

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