MADRID — For the first time in seven weeks, millions in Spain — one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus — ventured outdoors this weekend as the government gingerly eased Europe's strictest nationwide lockdown.
Spain has suffered the world’s highest per-capita fatality rate in the pandemic, with more than 25,000 deaths and over 218,000 confirmed cases. The government has been reluctant to relax its strict confinement measures — which included mandatory, nationwide lockdowns and the closure of parks, schools and shops — for fear of a spike in new infections. Even now, schools and most businesses are under orders to remain closed.
With parks fenced off, city dwellers gravitated toward spots such as Madrid’s expansive Plaza de Oriente, or Royal Palace Square, which overlooks the massive Casa de Campo park. Thousands thronged to the plaza Sunday in this upper-middle-class neighborhood in the city’s historic center, showing at once how eager Spaniards are to resume life beyond the confines of their homes and how willing they are to respect the protocols — most of them, anyway — even as a few elders grumbled about the government’s handling of the crisis.
6 to 10 a.m.: Adults exercise
Runners huffed through the long pedestrian area connecting the plaza with adjacent streets. Sweat dripped from red faces on the 69-degree morning (Fahrenheit). Four women raced up and down the steps. Cyclists zoomed between those on foot, pushing themselves in their first outdoor ride in 48 days.
“I wasn’t out of shape, because I have a machine at home, but it’s totally different out in the sunshine,” Luke Bogue, 32, said as he dismounted from his bike. “I didn’t plan my routine, just went for the maximum time I could and pedaled as hard as I could. Now, I’m off for a pizza and a beer at home to celebrate.”
10 a.m. to noon: 70 and older
A nearby church bell tolled, and the exercisers knew their time was up. Colorful sports attire faded from the plaza, giving way to subdued hues — and the slower pace of the over-70-year-olds. The most vulnerable segment of society, the elderly took their turn outdoors for the next two hours. The plaza visibly emptied.
Some, like Maria Jose de la Vera, 87, needed a little push to get back outside.
“These 48 days have really affected me,” she said. “I only came out because my daughter made me go with her.”
Some disagreed with the government closing the parks. Others took exception to how the government has sectioned the population by age, rather than by whether they were infected or not.
Many expressed frustration about how the lockdown has affected the Spanish economy, which posted a record 5.2 percent drop in gross domestic product for the first quarter.
“They should have tested everyone,” said Maria Rosa Calvo-Manzano, 74. “Sick people stay at home and the rest should go to work. That way we wouldn’t destroy the economy.”
Her husband went further.
“Cowardice characterizes today’s society,” 83-year-old Jose Maria Alberdi said. “Years ago, sacrifices were real. Now we are used to living well and getting everything so easily. But we’re afraid of everything and people are too soft.”
But 91-year-old Eulalia Velasco said she was afraid, too.
“I was frightened to go out. I saw crowds of people out this morning from my balcony and I didn’t want to come downstairs, but Ana — who takes care of me — said we had to go for 10 minutes,” Velasco said as Ana Almanza held a parasol to protect her.
Noon to 7 p.m.: Kids under 14
By the time the clock struck noon and the temperature rose to 80 degrees, the over-70 group had long disappeared. As if on cue, children, first permitted to play outside in late April, appeared.
A father chased a wobbly toddler around a statue of a Visigoth king, while another ran laps around the central garden with his daughter, both in matching running outfits. Another steadied his 7-year-old, who teetered on a skateboard.
None of the parents were on their phones. Most said they were comfortable with the way the government had segmented the schedule.
“We accept the sacrifice for the good of everyone. We have a lot of elderly neighbors,” said Rubén Garcia, skateboarding with his kids — Aliyah, 9, and Joud, 3. “We can see that the strict measures have had a positive effect and the numbers are going down. But getting kids outside was the important detail for a lot of people.”
Most disappeared indoors at lunchtime, at 2 p.m. For the next three hours, only dog walkers forayed into the square.
Kneepads, helmets and strollers reappeared around 5 p.m.
“He was champing at the bit to ride his new bike,” Ana Requena said of her 4-year-old, Omar.
A cluster of five parents chatted in an expansive circle — about 35 feet in diameter — monitored by police officers who cautioned when they got too close.
7 to 8 p.m.: 70 and older
Like clockwork, parents collected playthings and scurried home before the bells chimed 7 o’clock. Fewer older people opted for the evening hour. The nightly 8 p.m. applause to thank health workers erupted on schedule and ushered in the final stage of the day’s activities.
8 to 11 p.m.: Adults exercise
Headphones, bikes and spandex returned to the plaza in droves for the most densely populated time slot. But now, many emerged just to exercise their right to be outside.
“We’re happy to go for a stroll and be outside,” said Norma Jimenez, 31.
For many who have been living alone for seven weeks, the outing represented a reconnection to community.
“I can work out indoors no problem,” said Carlos Martín, a 40-year-old personal trainer, pausing from his yoga practice. “But it was exhilarating for me to come into the beautiful space, respect the social distancing, be outdoors and be surrounded by like-minded people all doing some form of exercise.”
By 9 p.m., more than 500 people were in the plaza, many sitting on the grass, waiting for the sun to set. The police saw them but decided not to make them stand, as dictated by the rules.
Large spaces separated them as they chatted, facing the sinking sun.
“We don’t need to exercise. We just wanted to breathe outdoors and watch the sun set,” said 38-year-old Jorge Valverde, sitting side by side with his girlfriend. “It’s a treat just to sit on the grass and watch people. I’m happy.”