BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spain decided Saturday to follow Italy in declaring a nationwide lockdown to slow the accelerating spread of the coronavirus epidemic, Spanish media reported.
Spain’s decision came as European countries took ever more severe, though widely varying, measures to reduce contact between their citizens and slow the pandemic. China — where the virus first emerged late last year — continued to ease up lockdown measures in its hardest-hit region.
According to a copy of the royal decree seen by The Associated Press, Spain’s government was to announce Saturday that it is placing tight restrictions on movement for the nation of 46 million people while declaring a two-week state of emergency. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was due to address the nation in the afternoon.
Health authorities in Spain said Saturday that coronavirus infections have reached 5,753 people, half of them in the capital, Madrid. That represents a national increase of over 1,500 in 24 hours. The country had 136 deaths, up from 120.
The number of new cases has dwindled in China, but the virus has in recent weeks spread exponentially in the Middle East, Europe and North America, leading President Donald Trump to declare a state of emergency for the United States on Friday. By Saturday, more than 145,000 infections and over 5,400 deaths had been confirmed worldwide.
Europe has now become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with countries imposing a cascade of restrictions in efforts to prevent their health systems collapsing under the load of cases. Schools, bars and shops not selling essential goods are among the facilities being closed in many places.
Residents in Madrid, which has around half the infections, and northeastern Catalonia had already awoken Saturday to shuttered bars and restaurants and other non-essential commercial outlets as ordered by regional authorities. Madrid ordered city parks closed and Seville canceled its Easter Week processions — one of Spain’s most important religious and cultural events.
Spain’s measures to date, though, had fallen short of those ordered by Italy, the worst-hit European country, which has reached a total of over 17,600 confirmed cases — the largest outbreak after China — with 1,266 deaths. The government in Rome has ordered an unprecedented lockdown, ordering businesses to close and restricting people’s movement.
Mayors of many Italian cities, including Rome and Milan, decided to close public playgrounds and parks. Under a government decree issued earlier in the week, people had been allowed in parks as long as they kept at least a distance of 1 meter between each other.
While limiting public life to a minimum, Premier Giuseppe Conte has said production — particularly of food and health supplies — must not stop. On Saturday morning, union and industrial leaders reached an agreement on special measures to keep factories running.
At noon, people around Italy came out on their balconies, terraces, gardens or simply leaned out from open windows to clap for several minutes in a gesture of thanks to medical staff.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Elsewhere in Europe, some countries moved to isolate themselves from their neighbors.
Denmark closed its borders and halted passenger traffic to and from the country, a measure that was due to last through April 13. Travelers were to be turned away at the border if they are unable to show that they have “a legitimate reason” to enter, for example they are Danish citizens or residents.
“I know that the overall list of measures is very extreme and will be seen as very extreme, but I am convinced that it’s worth it,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said.
Poland was closing its borders starting at midnight and denying all foreigners entry unless they lived in Poland or had personal ties there. Non-citizens allowed in will be quarantined for 14 days. The Czech Republic and Slovakia took similar action.
Russia said its land borders with Norway and Poland will be closed to most foreigners beginning Sunday.
On the other side of the globe, New Zealand announced that all incoming passengers, including New Zealand citizens, will be required to isolate themselves for 14 days, with few exceptions. Philippine officials announced a night curfew in the capital and said millions of people in the densely populated region should only go out of their homes during the daytime for work or urgent errands.
The steps being implemented globally increasingly mirror those taken by China, which in January made the unprecedented decision to halt outbound transportation from cities with a combined population of more than 60 million people, starting with the epicenter, Wuhan in the central province of Hubei.
The spread of COVID-19 in the country has slowed dramatically, according to China’s National Health Commission. Whereas the commission reported thousands of new cases daily only one month ago, it said Saturday that there were 13 new deaths and just 11 new cases, including people who recently arrived in China from other affected countries like Italy.
The government of Hubei lowered its health risk assessments for all counties in the province outside of Wuhan, the only city that remains “high-risk.” Several Hubei municipalities are gradually resuming public transportation services and reopening businesses.
Hundreds of parks, museums and art galleries have re-opened in Shanghai in another sign that epidemic-related restrictions are lifting.
The waning outbreak in China stands in contrast with an escalating number of infections elsewhere.
In the U.S., which reported its 50th death Friday, Trump said the new emergency decree will open up $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the crisis. The president said the decree also gave the secretary of health and human services emergency powers to waive federal regulations to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.
Drug company executives vowed to work together and with the government to quickly expand the country’s coronavirus testing capabilities, which are far behind those in many countries.
Cases topped 2,100 across the U.S., where thousands of schools have been closed, concerts and sporting events canceled and Broadway theaters shut down. Trump has halted his trademark political rallies, following the lead of Democratic rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.