Spain to reopen to tourists as South America named virus hotspot
MADRID, Spain – Spain said on Saturday, May 23, it would let in foreign tourists and restart top league football in the coming weeks, accelerating Europe's exit from strict coronavirus lockdowns, even as the disease continued its deadly surge in parts of South America.
Brazil saw its death toll passing 22,000 on Saturday from more than 347,000 infections, the second biggest caseload of any country in a pandemic. (READ: U.S. poised to ban travel from Brazil – White House aide)
And as much of the United States tiptoed out of lockdown at the start of the Memorial Day weekend which unofficially marks the beginning of summer, President Donald Trump sent a clear signal he was personally embracing normalization – he went golfing, his first such outing since March 8.
Some 5.26 million people have been infected globally, and 340,000 killed by the virus.
But with infection levels stabilizing across Europe, many governments were trying move away from economically ruinous lockdowns toward lighter social distancing measures that they hope will revive moribund business and tourism sectors.
In Spain, which has enforced one of the world's strictest lockdowns since mid-March, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced the resumption of tourism – a vital sector for much of Europe – and football.
Sanchez sought to reassure visitors, saying that from July 1, "entry for foreign tourists into Spain will resume in secure conditions" and La Liga football could return on June 8.
The United States, meanwhile, still faces the world's worst outbreak – the toll is less than 3,000 deaths away from the grim milestone of 100,000 – but Trump has aggressively pushed to reopen the economy, defying the advice of health experts.
The US economy has shed almost 40 million jobs this year and many companies, most recently car rental giant Hertz, have gone to the wall. But most states have begun easing their lockdowns and many on Saturday reopened public beaches.
"We just get tired of being stuck in the house. There's not much else to do. So I came to the beach," stay-at-home mother Kayla Lambert said, as her two children played in the surf in Galveston, Texas.
New York, once a virus epicenter, on Saturday announced its lowest daily statewide death toll since early March – 84.
"We are making real progress," said Governor Andrew Cuomo.
As Europe and the United States took clear steps toward reopening, Latin America emerged as a new virus hotspot.
"In a sense, South America has become a new epicenter for the disease," WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said, singling out Brazil.
Many deaths in Brazil have been among younger people, who are often driven by poverty to work despite the threat of infection.
Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who like Trump has played down the severity of the pandemic, has faced increasing pressure amid a rising death toll, with two of his health ministers resigning within weeks.
Scrutiny intensified after release of a video of a cabinet meeting on April 22 – as the country was fast becoming a virus flashpoint – in which Bolsonaro and his deputies barely mentioned the pandemic.
One of the few mentions of COVID-19 came when the environment minister suggested the government take advantage of the distraction created by the pandemic to relax environmental protection rules.
Neighboring Peru was also struggling. The country of 32 million has registered more than 3,100 deaths.
Ecuador, however, has seen nearly that many deaths – 3,096 – in a country of just 17 million. Tourism Minister Rosi Prado told AFP the pandemic could cost the country's important tourism sector $400 million a month.
By contrast, China, where the virus was first identified late last year, passed a milestone on Saturday with no new infections reported for the first time since January.
The outlook was also brightening elsewhere in Europe, particularly in hard-hit tourist hubs.
Italy is due to reopen its borders to foreign tourists from June 3.
Scenes on a beach near Rome looked strikingly normal – except for the occasional mask-wearing sunseeker.
"I was in such a hurry, I missed the sea so much," said Rome resident Arianna Tucci. "Breathing a little iodine, putting my feet in the sand, in the water, eating a little plate of spaghetti! And that's enough for me."
In the Middle East, Iran's museums and historical sites will reopen on Sunday, with holy shrines following on Monday.
And Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre will reopen on Sunday, the Christian authorities there said, but with tight restrictions.
However, the virus is still a cause for concern in the region, with tightly packed Gaza registering its first death on Saturday.
Illustrating the political difficulties of managing virus restrictions, Britain faced a scandal on Saturday: top government advisor Dominic Cummings was seen visiting his parents 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from his London home during the lockdown, despite suffering from virus symptoms.
He denies any wrongdoing but faces calls to quit.
'It's like 20 years ago'
Experts have warned that restrictions will be needed in some form until a vaccine or treatment is developed.
With no end in sight, sporadic anti-lockdown protests have been taking place across the world.
Thousands gathered in Madrid on Saturday to demand an end to the rules and Sanchez's resignation, in a protest led by the far-right party Vox.
People were scrambling to get around rules in the world's most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, so they could reunite with family for the Eid al-Fitr festival.
One man told AFP he got a fake certificate for his daughter to travel home from university in the capital, Jakarta.
"We want to celebrate Eid al-Fitr together like in past years," he said.
Some Europeans were finding a bit of solace in their new mode of life, reclaiming their cities and towns from the tourist hordes.
Laia Torra, in Barcelona's UNESCO-listed Park Guell, said the park has become too crowded in recent years.
"It's wonderful, it's like going back 20 years," she said as her children played. – Rappler.com