May 7, 2020 / 11:53 AM / 21 days ago

Spain steps gingerly towards normality, but Madrid and Barcelona may lag

* Spain moves ahead with lockdown phase-out plan

* Daily death toll drops again

* Madrid awaits decision on easing restrictions

* Barcelona still wary of relaxing lockdown

By Belén Carreño and Joan Faus

MADRID/BARCELONA, May 7 (Reuters) - Spain was weighing up further steps on Thursday to bring life back to normal as the coronavirus epidemic ebbed, but the capital Madrid and the city of Barcelona could remain under tight restrictions for the time being.

Both cities and their surroundings have registered the highest number of coronavirus deaths and infections in Spain, one of the countries worst hit by the global pandemic.

But with the economy reeling and citizens chafing for an end to a lockdown that has kept them largely confined to their homes for eight weeks, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government is anxious to get the country up and running again without igniting a second wave of infections.

Parliament voted on Wednesday night to extend a state of emergency for two more weeks from Sunday. This gives the government power to control people’s movements as it gradually relaxes the lockdown which succeeded in curbing the outbreak.

“If the security measures are complied with and the safety distances respected, I think it’s fantastic. I think it was about time,” said Charo Nunez, a pharmacy worker in Madrid.

“We’re exiting the pandemic I reckon, but we need to learn to protect ourselves. And people needed to get out and work.”

The Health Ministry gave Spain’s coronavirus death toll for the past 24 hours as 213 on Thursday, down from 244 the previous day and far below peaks of nearly 1,000 in early April.

That brought total deaths to 26,070. The number of diagnosed cases rose to 221,447 from 220,325 the previous day.

MADRID AWAITS DECISION

The government’s phase-out plan has several stages in which restrictions are progressively eased, such as the opening of bars or stores.

Each region must apply to enter a new phase if it considers it meets hospital capacity requirements, among other conditions.

Catalonia’s regional government proposed on Wednesday that the Barcelona metropolitan area would not be included in Phase 1, which starts on Monday after a preparatory Phase 0, saying there is a moderate to high risk of a new wave.

Castille and Leon, one of the largest but less populated regions in central Spain, also said it would wait until later.

Attention is now focused on Madrid, the epicentre of the outbreak in Spain, which is still registering high numbers of new cases.

Madrid region said it had submitted a request to the Health Ministry on Wednesday night for it to move on to Phase 1.

Health Emergency Chief Fernando Simon, asked at a news conference about prospects for that, said the data had to be evaluated. “Whether or not there is a transition to the phases is the health minister’s final decision. Our evaluation is made in terms of health and on the risks associated with mobility.”

Each region has its own particular circumstances, he added.

The rest of Spain’s regions have also asked to move to Phase 1 and are expected to make the transition smoothly.

The government’s plan has four phases and aims to have the country back to normal by the end of June, with sufficient hospital capacity to combat potential outbreaks.

Small businesses such as hairdressers started to open this week with restrictions while Spaniards are now allowed out of their houses for exercise.

Zara-owner Inditex started to reopen some of its smaller stores on Thursday as part of a gradual reopening of its the network.

The economy shrunk by its biggest amount on record, 5.2%, in the first three months of 2020 due to the crisis.

Tourist destinations are also desperate to start up again. The government predicts tourism, a bedrock of the economy, could shrink as much as 9.2% this year.

Reporting by Joan Faus, Belen Carreno, Guillermo Martinez, Silvio Castellanos, Inti Landauro and Clara-Laeila Laudette, Writing by Angus MacSwan, Editing by Andrei Khalip

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