May 2, 2020 / 8:07 AM / 24 days ago

Free at last! Spaniards get outside to exercise after 49 days of lockdown

MADRID, May 2 (Reuters) - Joggers and cyclists across Spain emerged from their homes early on Saturday, with adults allowed out for exercise for the first time in seven weeks as the government began easing coronavirus restrictions.

In Barcelona, runners and cyclists crowded paths near the beach, while surfers and paddle-boarders were out enjoying the waves.

Mar Visser, 45, who lost her job as an events organiser, was jogging along the path in Castelldefels, a town near Barcelona.

“I have been longing for this. It beats running in my house or doing yoga or Pilates inside,” she said.

In Madrid, cyclists and skateboarders streamed along the city’s wide boulevards, ducking under police tape set up to prevent people congregating in common areas.

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 as authorities scrambled to stop the disease from spreading and ease the burden on the stricken healthcare system.

Charlotte Fraser-Prynne, 41, a British government affairs consultant, was among the first to savour the new freedom to exercise - out for a run at 6 a.m. near the city’s Retiro Park.

While the park remained closed, hundreds of people were running on the pavement around it.

“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.

As the rate of infection has fallen and hospitals have regained their footing, the government has shifted its focus towards reopening the country and reviving the economy.

Last weekend, children under 14 were allowed out for an hour a day of supervised activity.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced a four-phase plan 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 death toll of 24,824 from the illness, and more than 215,000 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)

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