Easing lockdown, Spain readies for return of football and tourism

Spain prime minister makes dual announcement as anti-gov't demonstrators demand his resignation over lockdown measures.

    Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates will return to action in June when La Liga resumes in empty stadiums [File: Albert Gea/Reuters]
    Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates will return to action in June when La Liga resumes in empty stadiums [File: Albert Gea/Reuters]

    Spain will reopen its borders to tourists in July, and its top football division will kick off again in June, the prime minister has said, marking another phase in the easing of one of the world's strictest lockdowns.

    Pedro Sanchez's dual announcements on Saturday coincided with calls for his resignation over the lockdown's effect on the economy from the far-right Vox party, which called for protests in cities across Spain, drawing thousands of horn-blaring cars and motorbikes.

    "From July, foreign tourism will resume in safe conditions. We will guarantee tourists will not take any risks and will not bring us any risks," Sanchez told a televised news conference, without giving further details.

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    Foreign visitors contribute approximately an eighth of Spain's economic output and the government curbs - taken to contain one of Europe's severest coronavirus outbreaks - shuttered everything from hotels, bars and restaurants to beaches and leisure parks just as its tourism season got under way.

    Spain's overnight death toll from the coronavirus rose by 48 on Saturday to a total of 28,678, the seventh straight day that the fatality rate has been less than 100, while the total number of cases rose to 235,290.

    Malaga Spain protest Vox
    Spain is one of the worst-hit countries by the virus, with more than 28,000 dead among nearly 235,000 infections [Jon Nazca/Reuters]

    Close to a million jobs were lost in March alone when the lockdown began and the Bank of Spain has forecast the economy will contract by up to 12 percent this year.

    Sanchez also said another national money-spinner, top-flight La Liga football, would resume on June 8 with matches played in empty stadiums.

    Saturday's protesters called on him and Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias - head of left-wing Podemos, the junior partner in Socialist Sanchez's coalition - to resign for their handling of the crisis and, in particular, the economic fallout.

    "It is time to make a big noise against the government of unemployment and misery that has abandoned our self-employed and workers," Vox said. The government says the lockdown has allowed it to get the pandemic under control.

    Al Jazeera's Marta Herrero, reporting from Madrid, said the protesters in the capital were mainly adhering to the safety guidelines, wearing face masks and keeping a safe distance from each other.

    She noted the anti-lockdown sentiment had started earlier "as an isolated movement in a very wealthy, rich neighbourhood here in Madrid, with people banging pots and pans at nine o'clock".

    Herrero said anger gradually grew over the alleged mishandling of the coronavirus crisis by the government.

    "They (protesters) are saying that the government is using the state of emergency to gain power and take away civil liberties," she added.

    Madrid Spain protest Vox
    Saturday's mobile rally saw demonstrators mainly driving their cars in a procession or riding motorbikes [Javier Soriano/AFP]

    Authorities are set to ease more coronavirus restrictions on Monday, including in Madrid and Barcelona. The two cities account for almost half of the cases recorded in the country.

    Outdoor dining and gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed from next week. Some schools will restart in other areas. Cinemas and museums can also reopen, but only at a third of their capacity.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies