MADRID (Reuters) – Joggers, cyclists and surfers across Spain hurried out their homes on Saturday, allowed to exercise outdoors for the first time in seven weeks as the government began easing tough coronavirus restrictions.
In Madrid, cyclists and skateboarders streamed along the city’s wide boulevards. Barcelona’s beachside was packed with runners, while surfers and paddle-boarders were out enjoying the waves.
The crowds could be a matter of concern for the authorities, who have stressed that the easing of restrictions must be cautious and for exercise, not socialising.
Hit by one of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, Spain imposed a strict lockdown in March, confining most of the population to their homes for all but essential trips.
Sports and recreational walks were banned.
Charlotte Fraser-Prynne, 41, a British government affairs consultant, was among the first to savour the new freedom to exercise – out for an early morning run near Madrid’s Retiro Park, which remains shut.
“I have been looking forward to this for weeks. I was joking with my friends that I would be the first out in Madrid. I am very happy to be out after six weeks of yoga videos,” she said.
Health emergency chief Fernando Simon said parks would be opened “when the time is right”. Speaking at a news conference in Madrid he added that the idea behind the latest easing was for people to exercise, not to socialise in groups.
Prime Minster Pedro Sánchez called on people to follow guidelines on social distancing.
“Today we take a new step in the measures to ease the confinement but we must do it with prudence and responsibility. The virus is still there,” he tweeted.
As the rate of infection has fallen and hospitals have regained their footing, Sanchez’s government has shifted its focus towards reopening the country in a phased way and reviving a badly battered economy.
Last weekend, children under 14 were allowed out for an hour a day of supervised activity.
Madrid resident Susana Piego, 52, was out cycling in the city center on Saturday.
“The easing out plan is good,” she said. “We have to go little by little, like the WHO says, so that there is not another spike,” she said.
The World Health Organization said on Friday that countries must lift lockdowns gradually, while being ready to restore restrictions if the virus jumps back.
In Barcelona, there were throngs of people out on Saturday.
“Here on the beach promenade there are as many people as in summer,” said a publicist in the Catalan capital who gave her name only as Samara.
Sanchez announced a four-phase plan this week to return the country to what he termed “the new normality” by the end of June.
To avoid overcrowding as people get outside, the government has implemented a shift system, allocating different time slots to different age groups.
Businesses that operate by appointment, such as hairdressers, will be allowed to open from Monday. Bars and restaurants will remain closed for at least another week.
Spain has recorded a coronavirus death toll of 25,100, according to health ministry data on Saturday, and more than 216,582 cases.
The lockdown has hammered the economy and the government expects gross domestic product (GDP) to contract 9.2% in 2020.
Reporting by Graham Keeley, Michael Gore, Julien Hennequin; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Frances Kerry