MADRID (Reuters) - The streets of Spanish cities were eerily quiet on Monday, with the silence interrupted by police loudspeakers telling people to go home, as Spaniards spent their first working day under a lockdown due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Spain's 47 million people have been under partial lockdown since Saturday night, allowed to leave their homes only to go to work, buy food or visit a pharmacy or hospital.
More than 1,000 troops have been deployed in 14 cities across the country to help police the lockdown, telling people to go home unless they have a good reason to be outside. Army specialists sprayed disinfectant in train stations.
"If Spaniards take the measures seriously, we will start seeing results in around three or four days," health emergency coordinator Fernando Simon told a briefing, announcing that the official coronavirus death toll rose to 297 on Monday, with 8,744 confirmed cases of infection.
Spain has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world behind China, Italy and Iran.
The government was also mulling whether to close borders to stem the contagion in Spain. Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told Cadena Ser radio that closing Spain's borders was now "a real option to fight against the spread of the virus".
Police requisitioned at least 150,000 stockpiled protective masks in the southern town of Jaen for the health services in Madrid, which is the worst-hit region in Spain and where regional government leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso joined the swelling ranks of those infected by the virus on Monday.
Catalan regional leader Quim Torra also said he tested positive for coronavirus.
Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos told RNE radio the emergency situation would "obviously" have to be extended beyond the initially decreed 15 days.
While France, also hit by the coronavirus, went ahead with municipal elections on Sunday, the main political parties in Spain's Basque Country - the region with the second-highest number of cases - agreed on Monday to postpone regional elections scheduled for April 5.
Madrid's usually bustling Puerta del Sol square with the bronze figure of the city's symbol - a bear eating fruit from a madrono tree - was deserted except for an army patrol vehicle. Shops and restaurants were shut.
Police fined 199 people and arrested one person for breaking the quarantine, Madrid Mayor Jose Luis Martinez Almeida told state television TVE.
All services operated normally at Madrid's main Barajas airport, but there were very few travellers and various shops were closed. Only a few passengers rode the Madrid metro, and most wore masks.
The cabinet will meet on Tuesday to discuss how to tackle the economic fallout from the pandemic and the widespread closing down of shops, after failing to agree on a packet of measures over the weekend.
A government source said the package of liquidity measures would include support for small and medium sized companies and loosen rules on temporary layoffs.
Schools across the country are closed, keeping millions of children, and their parents, at home. Various large car plants have closed and the government said private healthcare facilities will be transferred to the national health system.
Major festivals, such as Sevilla's famed Holy Week processions in April, have been cancelled.
Spaniards have nonetheless shown solidarity in confronting the epidemic. In Madrid and other cities, people have come out on their balconies in the evening to applaud health workers or to sing traditional songs.
(Additional reporting by Jesus Aguado, Elena Rodriguez, Inti Landauro; Writing by Ingrid Melander, Nathan Allen, Andrei Khalip; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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