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Uncertainty in Madrid as court nixes partial virus lockdown

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

A Madrid Emergency Service (SUMMA) health worker checks the temperature of a man prior to a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 in the southern neighbourhood of Vallecas in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. About 5.2 million people in Spain, including nearly 4.8 million residents in or around Madrid, are under restrictions on movement due to the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

MADRID – A Madrid court on Thursday struck down a national government order that imposed a partial lockdown in the Spanish capital and its suburbs, siding with regional officials who had resisted stricter measures against one of Europe’s most worrying virus clusters.

The judges said that travel restrictions in and out of the cities and other limitations might be necessary to fight the spread of the virus, but that under the current legal form they were violating residents' “fundamental rights.”

Thursday’s decision meant that police won’t be able to fine people for leaving their municipalities without a justification. It also left 4.8 million residents in Madrid and nine suburban towns wondering whether it was appropriate to go away on a long weekend extended by Monday’s national day celebration.

Madrid's regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, had appealed the national restrictions but asked for people to stay put while waiting for a new set of measures that she wanted to negotiate with central authorities and announce as early as Friday.

Ayuso, who has argued that milder measures were already flattening the region's sharp infection curve, said she wanted "the economy not to sink while we are fighting the virus."

Not affected by the ruling were a six-person cap on gatherings and limits to restaurant, bar and shop capacity and opening hours.

Madrid has been at the center of a political impasse between Spain's national and regional authorities that has irked many people, who see more partisan strategy taking place than real action against the pandemic. The two sides were meeting later Thursday.

The region's 14-day infection rate of 563 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents is more than twice Spain’s national average and five times the European average of 113 for the week ending Sept. 27.

“You can fight this government if you want, but let’s first fight the virus,” said Health Minister Salvador Illa, showing signs of exasperation at criticism by lawmakers. “The virus is our common enemy.”

Madrid's high population density and the fact that it attracts workers from many surrounding areas “make necessary to maintain a reinforced cooperation,” he said.

Spain controlled the first wave of the pandemic with a strict lockdown under a national state of emergency, but the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lost parliamentary support to extend the special measures at the end of June. That meant giving most powers to respond to pandemic to the country’s 19 regional governments.

Without a state of emergency, the response to outbreaks over the summer has varied region by region, and courts in different parts of the country have responded in different ways to similar restrictions.

Popular Party chief Pablo Casado, the leader of Spain’s conservative opposition that leads a coalition governing Madrid, offered to talk with the government about changing the law.

“Spain has no legal framework with a midway point between a state of emergency and arbitrary decisions not based on the law that then need to be approved by a court,” he said.

Casado also called for the health minister to step down for promoting measures that he claimed politically targeted the Madrid region.

Thursday's developments only deepened the confusion among residents like Ana de la Calle, a high school teacher in Vallecas, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, who had cancelled plans for a three-day trip out of Madrid before the restrictions were nullified.

“Politicians are lurching following their own interests and people are paying the price for it,” de la Calle said.

Spain has the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the 27-nation European Union, at over 848,000, and has Europe's third-highest confirmed virus death toll of over 32,600 after Britain and Italy. Experts say numbers in all countries understate the true toll of the virus due to limited testing, missed cases, government concealment and other factors.


AP reporter Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.


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