By Paola Luelmo and Inti Landauro
(Reuters) – Spain recorded its lowest daily coronavirus death tally in six weeks on Thursday, but data showing the economy shrank by the widest margin on record in the first three months of the year laid bare the heavy cost of measures to control the outbreak.
Spain has had one of the world’s worst outbreaks with more than 24,000 COVID-19 fatalities and in mid-March imposed one of the strictest lockdowns, though officials are confident the worst has passed and want to start easing measures next week.
“The state of emergency has worked,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told reporters, as he detailed a plan to let people of different ages outside at different times to avoid crowds and minimise infection risk.
From Saturday, Spaniards will be allowed to take short walks and play sports from 6am to 10am and 8pm to 11pm. Between midday and 7pm will be reserved for young children, with the remaining slots set aside for elderly and vulnerable people.
Still, Illa urged people not to lose respect for the virus and said the country was moving into uncharted territory as it begins to lift restrictions on movement.
“For the new normality, there is no instruction manual,” he said.
Across the country, devastated businesses are contemplating how to return to some kind of normality in an environment where meticulous hygiene and social distancing will be of paramount importance.
“They force us to take measures – but it is impossible to get what they ask for,” said Livia Patare, a hairdresser on the Canary Islands who can open on Monday. “Yesterday I went crazy going to pharmacies and establishments looking for gloves.”
Beaches and hotels lie empty in a tourism sector that is one of the biggest contributors to the economy. Another big driver, construction and real estate, is at a standstill after only just recovering from the 2008 financial crisis.
“This crisis will be worse for hotel workers than 2009 was for construction. At least then we still had tourism,” said Francisco Rullan, who works at a hotel on the holiday island of Mallorca.
The number of fatalities related to the coronavirus recorded overnight in Spain fell to 268, the lowest since March 20, according to the Health Ministry. Cases rose to 213,435 – in a population of 47 million – from 212,917 the day before.
Spain’s economy shrunk by 5.2% in the first quarter compared to the previous period, preliminary data showed, with household spending plunging 7.5% as people hunkered down at home with most shops, bars and restaurants closed in March.
In another sign of the virus’s heavy economic toll, auto-maker’s association Anfac said new car sales are set to fall between 40% and 45% in 2020.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez outlined a four-phase plan to lift the lockdown with a planned return to normality by end-June.
Different areas of the country will progress through the stages at different speeds depending on how the rate of infection evolves and other criteria like compliance with social distancing rules.
Health Emergency Chief Fernando Simon raised the possibility that it may take longer to start unwinding the lockdown in Madrid and Catalonia, Spain’s worst affected regions.
(Additional reporting by Nathan Allen, Graham Keeley and Isla Binnie; Writing by Sonya Dowsett and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)