MADRID (Reuters) - Spain shut down schools in several regions, suspended flights from Italy and closed the lower house of parliament for at least a week after a lawmaker tested positive for the coronavirus, in the hope of stemming a growing outbreak.
The government recommended avoiding travel both within and outside Spain and banned indoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people in the regions most affected by the virus - Madrid, the Rioja wine-growing region and two areas in the northern Basque Country.
"We are working on avoiding the Italian scenario," Health Minister Salvador Illa told reporters. "With these measures we believe that we can avoid it. And if we have to take additional measures, we will take them."
Italy is the hardest-hit European country, with a nationwide lockdown, 9,172 cases and 463 deaths.
Spain, the euro zone's fourth-largest economy, reported 35 deaths and 1,622 confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday, a ten-fold increase in cases in a week.
The government announced it was cancelling all direct flights from Italy for at least two weeks from Wednesday to try to avoid further contagion.
State-funded pensioners' travel will also be suspended, while the government will evaluate whether to ban large events on a case-by-case basis beyond the worst-affected areas.
"We recommend ... avoiding travel whenever possible, both inside and outside Spain. If these are not essential trips, we ask you not to travel," Illa said.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Far-right lawmaker Javier Ortega Smith was diagnosed with the virus and the party said all its parliamentarians would be working from home until further notice, prompting the lower house of parliament to suspend activities for a week.
The metro of Madrid has started using hydroalcoholic solutions to clean handrails, seats, armrests and door controls to prevent infection.
Major sports events have also been hit. All of Spain's La Liga football matches will be played behind closed doors for at least two weeks, the top soccer league said.
Across the Madrid region, parents prepared for a two-week school shutdown starting there on Wednesday.
"It was chaos yesterday when I learnt about it. The phone started ringing and we started to see how we could organise ourselves. Thank God both the father and myself can work from home," said Ester Force, as she dropped her child at a Madrid primary school.
The closure of schools - from kindergarten to universities - in Madrid will affect at least 1.53 million pupils and students, regional authorities said, with tens of thousands more affected by school shutdowns in Rioja and in the Basque country.
Madrid schoolchildren, at least the oldest ones, will get online classes from Monday, a regional official said.
"We think that it is possible for students to continue having lessons from their homes from Monday onwards. It's easier in high school and university," Enrique Ossorio, Madrid Education councillor, said.
In some schools' WhatsApp groups, several parents pointed out what they saw as the inconsistency of closing schools and keeping the subway or swimming pools open.
WORK FROM HOME
Amid signs in some supermarkets that people were starting to hoard essential goods, causing long queues, for fear of suddenly being confined to their homes, the ANGED association of Spain's main retail chains issued a statement to say that the supply chain was working properly.
EU leaders planned emergency talks in a video conference call on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a joint response to the virus outbreak.
Spain's largest banks sought to minimise the business effects of the coronavirus outbreak, with Santander and BBVA both calling on shareholders to participate remotely at their annual general meetings.
Economy Minister Nadia Calvino, speaking to the TVE broadcaster, declined to give an estimate of the impact the epidemic could have on growth.
"Rather than devote my energy to say if it will be a tenth (of GDP growth percentage point) or two, we will focus on ... minimising the economic impact and helping the companies and sectors that could be most affected," Calvino said.
The government is expected to unveil a package of measures at a cabinet meeting on Thursday. Steps could include credit lines for small- and medium-sized firms as well as measures to help parents cope with school shutdowns.
It was not all downbeat news in Spain.
Guests waved and cheered as they finally left a hotel in Tenerife, in the sunny Canary Islands, after having been under lockdown for two weeks after several cases of coronavirus were detected there.
"Okay, early days we were a bit nervous about the virus, but that soon passed, yes," said British tourist Christopher Betts. "And when we think of the weather back home in England, the rain, the wind, this is a far better place to stop to serve quarantine."
(Reporting by Emma Pinedo, Belen Carreno, Inti Landauro, Elena Rodriguez, Jose Elias Rodriguez and Jesus Aguado in Madrid, Vincent West in Labastida and Marco Trujillo in Tenerife; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)
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