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Standoff over Madrid's response to virus pandemic continues

MADRID – Spain’s health minister pleaded Monday for the third time in four days for tougher coronavirus restrictions in the capital, after a meeting with Madrid regional officials without agreeing on how to tackle a worrying wave of COVID-19 infections.

The national government wants to see existing restrictions against the spread of the virus extended to the entire city while regional officials say that time is needed to see if the current limitations have an effect and that drastic measures would further hurt Spain’s economy.

The disagreement has played out publicly, raising concern among many in Madrid and the rest of Spain.

Health Minister Salvador Illa said that data show that the Madrid region, home to 6.6 million, “has community transmission and the pandemic is not under control.”

“It’s already too late and we need to act with determination,” he told a news conference.

Official data showed Monday that the country’s coronavirus tally has reached 748,266 infections since the onset of the pandemic, 31,785 more since the last update on Friday. There were 179 new fatalities for COVID-19, bringing the total death toll to 31,411, although experts think that many more deaths haven't been recorded because of limited testing.

With 290 cases per 100,000 people in two weeks, Spain is by far leading Europe’s infections during this second wave. The rate is particularly high in the capital, Madrid, with 775 new cases per 100,000 over the past 14 days.

While primary care workers complain that they are overwhelmed by the number of people approaching health centers with suspected COVID-19, many hospitals in Madrid have already stopped certain surgeries and some non-essential treatment. Existing intensive care units are already being expanded with new beds, as they were in March during the first wave of the pandemic.

Madrid has limited all social gatherings to a maximum of six people, reduced the numbers of people who can go into shops and restaurants, and restricted access to and from 45 neighborhoods in the region.

The regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, has rejected a full lockdown, arguing that the closure of the city is “the easy way” out against the outbreaks.

“Completely confining Madrid was easy during the first stage of the pandemic, but we are still seeing the consequences. We are going bankrupt,” she told Antena 3 television Sunday. “I don't know how many companies continue to lose jobs and opportunities every single day and therefore we have to apply creative formulas.”

In a news conference late Monday, regional health chief Enrique Ruíz Escudero said that the spread in Madrid is “under control” and “improving,” and that there was no need for the central government to step in.

Restrictions were expanded Monday from 37 to 45 districts, comprising a total of 1 million people in or around the Spanish capital.

Isabel Fernández, a resident in the suburban town of Alcorcón, said she found confusing what were the limits of the area around her neighborhood that she wasn't allowed to leave under the new measures.

“Until we find our way without breaking the rules, this is a mess for old people," the 87-year-old said.

Pedro García, 83, said that politicians were erring in both the type of measures but also their priorities.

“Find a vaccine, that's what the politicians should do instead of fighting each other,” he said.

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Alicia León contributed to this report.