By Belén Carreño and Jesús Aguado
MADRID (Reuters) – Major Spanish regions shut shops, bars and restaurants, car plants ground to a halt and Easter parades were canceled as Spain prepared to enter a 15-day state of emergency on Friday, in a sharp escalation of its fight against the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the number of cases could top 10,000 by next week – more than double the current level – and asked citizens to play their part.
“Heroism is also washing your hands and staying home,” Sanchez said in a televised address to the nation on Friday.
Spain has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Europe after Italy. The current Spanish tally stands at 4,231, up about 1,000 cases from Thursday. About 120 people have died.
Sanchez did not spell out what emergency powers he would use, or what help shut-down businesses would get. The order allows the government to confine people, ration supplies and requisition factories and buildings, apart from private homes.
But, in a sign of brewing tensions between regions and his administration, some regional leaders called on the central government to provide more support.
The regional government of Catalonia said it wanted and was ready to confine the whole region due to the epidemic and asked the central authorities to block its access by air, rail and water, regional leader Quim Torra said.
The goal is to restrict passenger entry into the region from coronavirus-risk zones in the rest of Spain and Europe, but the proposed measure would not block important freight road traffic from Spain to France, a Catalan government spokesman added.
Although advised not to, people would still be allowed to move within Catalonia – Spain’s second-wealthiest region of over 7 million – except in those towns already on lockdown, he added.
In the first large-scale action of its kind in Spain, Catalan authorities on Thursday locked down four towns north of Barcelona, while on Friday they ordered the closure of gyms, nightclubs and shopping centers, apart from ones selling food.
Madrid’s regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso said she did not have the power to put the capital on lockdown and that such a decision would have to come from the central government.
Her government in Spain’s richest region said that starting at midnight (2300 GMT) and until at least March 26, bars, restaurants and shops, except for food shops, petrol stations and others selling essential items, would be closed to the public.
Bars and restaurants would still be able to provide home delivery services or have food picked up at the premises.
The decision was met with dismay and confusion by some workers in Madrid, home to half of Spain’s coronavirus cases, which was unusually quiet on Friday, with shops, streets and cafes largely deserted.
“It is a disaster for employers and workers,” 39-year old Mustafa Elkeneski, a waiter in a cafe in the center of the city.
“We don’t know how it will work out. The issue of pay is up in the air.”
Authorities in Andalusia recommended the closure of “all leisure and commercial establishments”.
The region of Murcia in the southeast announced a 14-day lockdown of seven coastal tourist towns in a move that local media said would affect some 376,000 people.
The restrictions have also reached deep into Spanish culture. The country’s bishops’ association, the Spanish Episcopal Conference, issued guidelines on the spread of coronavirus in which it said “processions of this time have to be canceled”, suggesting Spain’s famous Easter parades will not go ahead.
Some Holy Week processions had already been canceled by local church authorities. Due to start in early April this year, the events usually draw crowds of believers and tourists.
Supply problems due to the outbreak prompted some Spanish plants of the Renault-Nissan alliance and Volkswagen’s Spanish division Seat to announce temporary stoppages on Friday that could last for days or weeks.
(Reporting by Belen Carreno, Emma Pinedo, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Joan Faus, Andrei Khalip and Jessica Jones; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Daniel Wallis)