By Belén Carreño and Nathan Allen
MADRID (Reuters) – Spain announced a four-phase plan on Tuesday to lift one of the toughest coronavirus lockdowns in Europe and return to normality by the end of June as the daily death toll fell to 301, less than a third of a record high of 950 in early April.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the lifting of the restrictions that have halted public life since March 14 and nearly paralysed the economy, will begin on May 4 and vary from province to province.
During the initial phase, hairdressers and other businesses that operate via appointment will open, while restaurants will be able to offer takeaway services.
In the next stage, envisaged to begin on May 11 for most of Spain, bars will reopen their terraces but will be limited to a third of their capacity.
From this point, healthy people with no underlying medical conditions will be allowed to socialise together in small groups, while family members will be permitted to attend funerals.
Advancing through the stages will depend on factors such as how the rate of infection evolves, the number of intensive care beds available, and compliance with distancing rules, Sanchez said, without providing concrete thresholds for such evaluation.
Local authorities are responsible for monitoring the conditions in their regions, but the national Health Ministry will have the final say on whether or not a province moves forward.
Remote working will be recommended where possible until reaching the last phase of the plan towards the end of June, when beaches would also be able to reopen with the support of local authorities.
“We are starting to glimpse an outcome that will be a reward for the huge collective effort made over the past weeks,” Sanchez said, warning that the “virus is still lurking.”
Sanchez explained the government had chosen not to set precise deadlines for the easing of the lockdown to avoid missing them in what is a fluid situation.
Total fatalities since the start of the outbreak rose to 23,822 on Tuesday, with the daily increase coming down from Monday’s 331, the health ministry said. The number of diagnosed cases rose to 210,773 – the world’s second-highest after the United States, which has more than 1 million, according to a Reuters tally.
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Initial responses from trade groups, who have been pressuring the government to restart Spain’s faltering economy, were mixed.
The CEC group, which represents small shops, said it was moderately optimistic about the proposals. However, hotel association Hosteleria de Espana was less convinced by the measures, which it said did not do enough to help the sector recover.
“Our first assessment is that the measures have been rushed, without building any consensus in the sector and with many unknowns still to be cleared up,” it said in a statement.
Sanchez warned there would be a recession of “extraordinary scale” this year that will demand an extraordinary response from the European Union.
First-quarter unemployment rose to 14.4% from 13.8% in the preceding three months, the National Statistics Institute said. That data only partially reflected the impact of the lockdown that began two weeks before the end of the quarter.
According to forecasts by the Bank of Spain, the coronavirus crisis could push the unemployment rate up to 21.7% this year, with the economy contracting as much as 12.4%.
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Belen Carreno, Inti Landauro, and Jesus Aguado; Writing by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien)