Spaniards party as COVID curfew ends but doubts remain


People dance at the Barcelona beach, as the state of alarm decreed by the Spanish Government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is due to end on Sunday, in Barcelona, Spain, May 8, 2021. Picture taken May, 8, 2021. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

MADRID/BARCELONA (Reuters) -Exhilarated Spaniards chanting "freedom" danced in streets and partied on beaches as a COVID-19 curfew ended in most of the country, but others feared it was too soon to let go.

In scenes akin to New Year's Eve celebrations, hundreds of mainly young people gathered in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square to applaud the clock striking midnight while in Barcelona revellers headed to the beach with drinks in hand.

Some wore masks but there was scant social distancing as friends kissed, hugged, danced and sang.

"Young people, like everyone else, have been very restricted," said shop worker Paula Garcia, 28, on the beach in Barcelona. "Now was time to give us a bit of freedom to enjoy a little of the summer."

But in the Basque Country, where regional authorities had asked to keep the curfew but were rebuffed by a court last week, some locals were less excited.

"It's very bad that there is no state of emergency," said Asun Lasa, walking along San Sebastian's seafront on Sunday. "People want to go out but the situation is not ready for that."

The Basque Country has Spain's highest infection rate at 448 per 100,000 against a national average of 199.

Social media videos of large groups paying little heed to distancing drew criticism on Sunday. "Freedom does not include breaking the rules," said Madrid's conservative mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida, emphasizing that gatherings to drink on the street, known as "botellones", were prohibited.

'TIME TO LET US OUT'

One of Europe's worst-hit nations, Spain has suffered 78,792 coronavirus deaths and 3.6 million cases. But infection rates have fallen and vaccinations are progressing fast, enabling most of the 17 regions to scrap the curfew.

Only four regions were keeping it: the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Navarra and Valencia.

"It was time they let us out," said store clerk Andreu Pujol, 25, also on the beach in Barcelona.

"Even so, I am still very unhappy with the handling (of the pandemic). You can see that in this country all they do is make things up as they go along," .

As impromptu parties sprung up in town centres around the nation, police reminded some revellers that drinking on the street was prohibited.

While the curfew has been lifted, most regions have kept limits on opening hours for bars and restaurants, forcing people onto the streets.

"There is no consistency between the end of the state of emergency and the opening times of shops and bars," said Mikel Martinez, a barman in San Sebastian.

"It doesn't make sense that a bar has to close at 10 p.m. while people can be in the street together without any controls."

Madrid's right-wing regional president Isabel Diaz Ayuso has won reelection after campaigning on looser measures, but the city has the second highest infection rate in Spain and was still ordering bars and restaurants shut from midnight.

Even so, there was joy at the end of curfew.

"The right to move freely is fundamental," said Madrid resident Luis Rigo in the Puerta del Sol.

"I'm happy, I'm delighted of course."

(Reporting by Jordi Rubio and Luis Felipe Castilleja in Barcelona, Vincent West in San Sebastian and Silvio Castellanos in Madrid; Writing by Jessica Jones; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Giles Elgood)

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