Spain steps up coronavirus measures to 'avoid Italian scenario'

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain shut down schools in several regions, suspended flights from Italy and advised against all non-essential travel on Tuesday in the hope of stemming a rising tide of coronavirus cases.

The number of confirmed cases increased threefold from Sunday and tenfold in a week, prompting Spain, which had so far taken few drastic steps, to change tack and announce a slew of measures.

The government banned indoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people in the most affected regions – Madrid, the Rioja wine-growing region and two areas in the northern Basque Country, while all La Liga football matches will be played behind closed doors for at least two weeks.

And the lower house of parliament decided to close down for at least a week after a lawmaker tested positive for the virus, while banks and other companies across the country told staff to work from home.

“We are working on avoiding the Italian scenario,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference. “With these measures we believe that we can avoid it. And if we have to take additional measures, we will take them.”

Italy is the hardest-hit European country, with a nationwide lockdown, 10,149 cases and 631 deaths. The ban on flights from Italy will last at least two weeks.

Spain, the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy, has so far reported 36 deaths and 1,639 coronavirus cases, a sharp surge from the 589 cases recorded on Sunday.

Far-right lawmaker Javier Ortega Smith was diagnosed with the virus, and his party, Vox, instructed its parliamentarians to work from home. The lower house of parliament suspended activities for a week.

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Across the Madrid region, parents prepared for a two-week school shutdown starting there on Wednesday.

“It was chaos yesterday when I learnt about it… Thank God both the father and myself can work from home,” said Ester Force, as she dropped her child at a Madrid primary school.

The closures will affect 1.53 million students, with tens of thousands more affected by similar shutdowns in Rioja and the Basque country.

Shelves in some supermarkets were left bare as buyers rushed to stock up on essentials like pasta, toilet paper and cooking oil.

“I did buy more stuff than usual obviously due to the coronavirus, mainly because of my children,” shopper Susana Arcalla told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the royal family canceled its program of official engagements for the next week and the national prison service restricted visiting rights in some facilities. In Italy, restrictions on prison visits had led to widespread rioting.

Santander and BBVA called on shareholders to participate remotely at their annual general meetings while a string of companies, including Mapfre, Naturgy and Telefonica introduced measures to let staff work from home as a precautionary measure.

The government is expected to unveil a package of measures at a cabinet meeting on Thursday. Steps could include credit lines for small- and medium-sized firms as well as measures to help parents cope with school shutdowns.

It was not all downbeat news in Spain.

Guests waved and cheered as they left a hotel in Tenerife, in the sunny Canary Islands, where they spent two weeks in lockdown after several cases of coronavirus were detected there.

“In a way we’re a bit sad to go home because we’ve had a really, really nice time despite all of this,” British tourist Janet Betts said.

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