MADRID — After already enjoying a long night of graduation celebrations, a throng of young people poured into the Babylon discothèque at 5 a.m. to continue partying in the southern Spanish city of Córdoba.
Two weeks later, 91 people linked to the Babylon’s 400 identified partygoers have tested positive for the coronavirus and the regional authorities are still struggling to trace all those who entered the club that night, or who later came into contact with them.
Spain lifted a nationwide state of emergency on June 21 as it emerged from a strict three-month lockdown imposed to gain control over one of Europe’s worst outbreaks. The rapid spread of the virus in Spain left some 28,4000 people dead by the official count — almost surely understated — with most of them over the age of 70.
Since then, new coronavirus cases have quadrupled — now concentrated among young people — as the left-wing coalition government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez returned responsibility for a safe reopening to Spain’s regions. That has made Spain a mosaic of new rules — some less stringent or more loosely enforced than others — and an uneven patchwork of successes mixed with alarming failures.
The country is now grappling with 224 local outbreaks, Spain’s health minister, Salvador Illa, told Parliament on Wednesday.
Several other European countries, from Portugal to Germany, have faced significant local outbreaks after coming out of lockdown, but most of those were more limited in scale and snuffed out relatively quickly. Authorities isolated pockets of new cases and traced those who may have been exposed.
The resurgence in Spain has underscored not only the need for vigilance as societies reopen, but also for supporting measures like additional testing and contact tracing — steps that Spain remains ill-equipped to carry out.
The result is that hundreds of thousands of people in various parts of the country have been forced to return to temporary lockdowns, notably in the northeastern region of Catalonia, an area especially hard-hit before.
But public tolerance for new lockdowns may prove lower than in March and April, when the nationwide quarantines were largely obeyed but only grudgingly accepted.
Young people in particular are chafing at the restrictions, especially because they are less likely to become gravely ill as a result of infection. While the demographic shift toward young people has reduced the risk that Spain’s health care sector will once more get saturated with Covid-19 patients, as happened in late March, it has raised a new concern about asymptomatic transmissions, which make the need for testing all the more pressing.
Yet health experts are warning that Spain continues to fall short in terms of testing for Covid-19.
“Spain should now design a specific strategy to identify asymptomatic patients,” Helena Legido-Quigley, an associate professor of public health at the University of Singapore. Overall, she added, “testing capacity and contact tracing could be much improved” in Spain.
Mr. Illa, Spain’s health minister, warned recently that his Socialist-led coalition government was ready to reactivate Spain’s state of emergency if it became clear that regions were not able to control the latest outbreaks.
But Mr. Illa leads a fragile minority government that has faced fierce criticism from opposition parties over the government’s response to the pandemic.
This week, María Jesús Montero, the minister who is the government’s spokeswoman, sent a special message of caution to “people who are younger, because some of the outbreaks are linked to the behavior in nightlife venues or places where a large number of people gather.”
In the case of Catalonia, which has had one of the worst resurgences of the virus, the situation has been complicated by disagreement between politicians and local judges over who has the authority to put people back under lockdown.
Last week, the Catalan regional leader, Quim Torra, urged, rather than ordered, about three million people living around Barcelona to stay indoors and “demonstrate that we are a society of solidarity.”
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 23, 2020
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
What’s the best material for a mask?
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
Many people ignored Mr. Torra’s recommendation, however, and the local police were even forced to close some of Barcelona’s packed beaches over the weekend because of the risk of infection.
While the most serious outbreaks have recently occurred in northeastern Spain, only two of Spain’s 17 regions — Madrid and the Canary Islands — have reimposed requirements to wear face masks at all times outdoors.
Enforcement has proved to be complicated, not only at outdoor gatherings but also in places like nightclubs that have been allowed to reopen under occupancy limits.
In Córdoba, there are conflicting accounts of what happened in the Babylon club, which was restricted to 40 percent of its 500-person capacity to allow social distancing. Regional officials say they have identified about 400 people who went to the club that night, though its management has insisted that no more than 140 were inside at any one moment. The club is now closed while an investigation continues.
Some regions of Spain are reporting a particularly strong uptick in the number of cases among adolescents. In the northern region of Aragón, where authorities said this week that they could contain the outbreaks without a return to lockdown, the rate of infection rose sevenfold in one month among people tested between ages 10 and 19.
Some recent outbreaks have been linked to vulnerable sectors of society, notably seasonal fruit pickers in northeastern Spain, who are often migrant workers.
In recent days, Spanish hoteliers and travel operators have reported more booking cancellations since the new outbreaks and lockdowns were announced. The latest outbreaks could threaten cross-border travel in Europe, at a time when some tourism destinations are already suffering because airlines have only reopened some of their routes.
Last week, Jean Castex, the new French prime minister, said his government was monitoring the situation in neighboring Catalonia to decide whether France’s border with Spain should be kept open.
On Wednesday, Reyes Maroto, the Spanish tourism minister, urged France not to close the border. “We are cohabiting with the virus, but this does not mean that we cannot travel and recover some kind of normalcy,” Ms. Maroto told a conference in Madrid.