Lessons from lockdown: What it’s like in Spain during the mandatory quarantine right now

Mar 17, 2020

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Last week, I went for a walk on the beach and shopped for workout clothes — standard weekend activities. Now, Spain is on lockdown. I could be fined, or even arrested, if caught leaving my home for nonessential reasons.

Empty roads in Granada. (Photo by Carlos Gil/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)
Empty roads in Granada. (Photo by Carlos Gil/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Quite a few events occurred between those two extremes, of course. Here’s how life went from normal to being under a nationally mandated house arrest in a mere week.

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The backstory

I’m an American citizen, born and raised in Chicago, but now I live in Spain with my Spanish husband. I have a great support system here in Europe, with friends and family everywhere from Spain to Italy and France. But a majority of my immediate family members and friends live in the United States.

Like many of you, I read the news of the emerging coronavirus wide-eyed, but feeling very removed from the situation. Like many of you, I nervously monitored the virus as cases spread, but never felt directly threatened — until recently, that is. Perhaps some people in the U.S. still feel unaffected by the disease.

A few weeks back, my husband was recovering from nasal surgery, so we had retreated from Madrid to his family’s vacation residence, a one-bedroom beach apartment in the Mediterranean town of San Juan, just outside of Alicante, so he could breathe refreshing sea air, rest and recover. I work remotely, and he was on paid leave.

Life seemed close to normal, though we had much less social interaction than usual due to my husband’s recovery. With unusually warm, spring-like temperatures here in Spain, we took early morning walks on the beach; in the afternoon, he napped while I worked. We barely had contact with anyone, as all of our friends and family were back in Madrid, and my husband didn’t feel quite well enough for evening drinks or dinner out. Later, we’d realize our accidental self-quarantine was a blessing in disguise.

When the news of Italy’s lockdown hit, we were worried, as we have family in the epicenter of the virus, Lombardy’s Bergamo. But the situation still, somehow, felt very far away.

At this point, cases were increasing in Spain, though the numbers were only in the double digits and nothing seemed dire. Then, as confirmed cases began to spike at an alarming rate, we noticed the panic. Still, thousands (including my mother-in-law and other family members) gathered for International Women’s Day on March 8 in Madrid, and life continued along as normal.

International Women
International Women’s Day in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Alvaro Hurtado/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

We had planned to return to Madrid that week until we got the news that schools were closed in Madrid. As my husband is a primary school teacher, it turned out he wouldn’t have to return to work. He suffers from asthma and other respiratory issues and was still in recovery from surgery, so we deemed it best to stay far away from Madrid, where cases were on the rise.

Once schools were shut in Madrid on Wednesday, March 11, things became more real. Still, here in Alicante, many people were unfazed. Others were increasingly worried, and the hashtag #yomequedoencasa, meaning “I stay home,” began trending, a warning to others about the severity of the situation.

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The quarantine

On Friday, March 13, Spain declared a national state of emergency, meaning the national government was allowed to override regional governments to take whatever measures it considered appropriate to stop the spread of the virus. This came alongside the notice of bars, gyms, restaurants, cinemas, zoos and theaters closing effective Saturday, March 14 in the city of Madrid.

A closure notice on a popular restaurant. (Photo by Lori Zaino)
A closure notice on a popular restaurant. (Photo by Lori Zaino)

Word that an official, national lockdown would soon happen was leaked. By this point, grocery store shelves were empty, and families were fleeing Madrid in droves, though cases were already also scattered around Spain. Stories about hospitals teetering on the brink were rampant, and death tolls were rising.

An official quarantine and lockdown of the entire country for a minimum of 15 days was announced by Spain’s president, Pedro Sanchez, on the evening of Saturday, March 14.

Tweet from @Madrid, stating the lockdown rules.
Tweet from @Madrid stating the lockdown rules.

It was unclear at first when the lockdown would begin, whether it was Saturday at midnight, or perhaps Sunday — maybe even Monday morning. Citizens around Spain were worried, scared and nervous. Others were taking advantage of every last moment of freedom, meeting friends at bars or parks.

The rules

A cordoned-off beach in San Juan de Alicante. (Photo by Lori Zaino)
A cordoned-off beach in San Juan de Alicante. (Photo by Lori Zaino)

Sunday morning, I went out for a walk to check out the situation. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The beach was roped off with police tape. After a couple minutes strolling, keeping distance between myself and the few people I encountered, a police officer on a quad pulled up and politely but firmly told me to return home immediately. It seemed the lockdown had begun.

That brings me to the official rules of Spain’s lockdown, which differ slightly from those in Italy. We’re only allowed to leave our homes for essential reasons. These include going to the supermarket and pharmacy. Kiosks and estancos (which sell things like cigarettes and stamps) are open as well. Citizens are allowed to go to the doctor or the hospital.

While you’re allowed to walk your dog, you aren’t allowed to just stroll around, or jog in the park (these are closed). You can’t ride your bike or simply be out and about. Police officers can stop you at any time, and if you don’t have a valid reason for being out, they can insist you return home. If you’re warned a second time, you may be fined, and if you resist, you could get arrested.

Public transportation in major cities around Spain is still operating, though at a reduced frequency. Metro and bus routes near major hospitals are given higher priority. Those going to work (think: hospital staff, janitors) are allowed to commute.

Police cars cruise the streets with megaphones insisting people stay at home, and also patrol the street on foot. Unlike Italy and France, you don’t need to carry a special paper around with you to denote your reason for leaving the house — for now.

Spain doesn
Spain doesn’t require citizens to carry a paper denoting their reasons for leaving the house, like French citizens must. (Photo by Norma Galan Bran).

Spain has fully closed its land borders (Spanish citizens are permitted to return home), and air and port traffic is currently limited with the possibility of full closure soon.

Quarantine is especially difficult for Spaniards because so much of their daily lives takes place outside the home. Spain is a dense country where much of the population lives in apartments, choosing to convene outside the house in bars, restaurants and parks. Daily paseos, or walks, are a staple, and many get from point A to point B using public transportation, by walking or cycling, especially in larger cities. Few Spaniards have the luxury of a yard, pool or garage with a second freezer to store food during a lockdown.

Related: European airlines are slashing flight schedules amid new travel restrictions during coronavirus epidemic

Life under lockdown

As of now, I haven’t left the apartment in Alicante in a few days. I don’t have Wi-Fi, but I do have unlimited data on my phone, which I’ve been using as a hotspot to work, stream videos and stay in touch. I feel lucky that, although my husband and I are enclosed in a relatively tiny space, I do have a small outdoor terrace that allows me to sit outside and breathe fresh air every day — something I definitely wouldn’t have back in Madrid. I’m used to working remotely and I can see the sea from my balcony, so life could definitely be worse.

My kitchen space is very limited, but I stocked up as best I could. I wasn’t able to get meat, seafood or chicken at the grocery store on Friday or Saturday, so I’ll need to venture out to the store soon. I’ve been told it’s best to go first thing in the morning.

Empty grocery store shelves in Alicante. (Photo by Lori Zaino)

Although the stores are busier at this time, shelves are restocked overnight, so there’s a higher chance they’ll have some of the fresh items I need then. Either way, it’s not the end of the world, as I do have eggs, fruit, pasta, canned and frozen items at home that should last for over a week.

Similar to other countries, there also seems to be a toilet paper shortage. I find this odd in Spain, as most family homes have bidets.

An empty shelf that once held toilet paper at a grocery store in Alicante. (Photo by Lori Zaino)

The highlight of my day comes in the evening, when the entire country empties onto balconies and cheers, claps, yells, plays music or bangs pots and pans for a few minutes to cheer on those working so hard in the hospitals to save lives. While this may not seem like much, this brief act of camaraderie is helping to keep my spirits up. If you’re in need of a heartwarming boost, I’m sharing daily videos of this on my Instagram story.

Hotels and attractions

Many hotels in Spain have closed their doors along with restaurants and bars. Spain’s paradores (historic hotels) have announced that, if their properties have any guests, they’ll stay open to serve them. Those without will close and any leftover food will be donated to social services.

Some of the Roommate Hotels (part of the Palladium Group) in Madrid will have another use. The Roommate Mario and the Roommate Laura (as well as the Ayre Gran Hotel) have been offered to the government to be used for nonemergency health care needs.

Normally busy 24/7, the traffic circle around Madrid
Normally busy 24/7, the traffic circle around Madrid’s Puerta de Alcala is empty. (Photo by Carmen Hanson)

Tourist attractions are closed. If anyone is caught wandering Madrid’s Plaza Mayor or visiting Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, they will be sent home immediately.

Tourists are told to head home outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Angel Garcia/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Tourists are told to head home outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Angel Garcia/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

What about Americans in Spain?

While there are very few American tourists left in Spain (most rushed home last week after Trump’s ban), there are some European visitors left in the country. Although most of them are following the lockdown rules, there have been reports of tourists being repeatedly told to leave the beaches and public areas of Mallorca and Benidorm.

While the thought of returning to the U.S. never crossed my mind, some Americans living in Madrid have struggled with the choice to stay or leave, grappling with the possibility of being trapped in Europe for an unknown amount of time — or, on the other hand, possibly infecting family members back in America.

Julia, a U.S. citizen and freelance consultant who has lived in Madrid for more than seven years, had planned on moving back to Washington, D.C. soon, though she’s unsure now if or when she’ll be able to leave the country. Her planned final six weeks in Spain had been set to include visits from friends that have since been canceled.

Although family members have urged her to return home, she’s sticking things out alone in her 350-square-foot studio apartment.

“I’m worried about infecting my aging parents,” she told The Points Guy, noting one parent suffers from multiple sclerosis. “Plus, I have access to much more affordable healthcare here in Spain that I do in the U.S. It’s a sobering moment to realize that the safest place you can be during a global pandemic is not your country of citizenship, a thought I’ve woken up to with much anxiety the past several days.”

Carmen, a 23-year-old American English teacher in Madrid, is also staying put, as her school will continue paying her salary as she works from home. Fears of infecting her parents back in California also influenced her decision to stay.

“The worst part is the loneliness,” she told TPG. “I had six roommates, but they all went home. I used to complain about how loud they were, but now I wish they were still here.”

Although she’s had virtually no social interaction during the lockdown, she does feel grateful about one thing: “All the supermarkets near me have been stocked and no one seems to be selfishly hoarding anything.”

An empty Madrid street. (Photo by Carmen Hanson)
An empty Madrid street. (Photo by Carmen Hanson)

Lockdown anxiety is affecting those all over Spain, not just in Madrid. And many needing hospital care for reasons other than the novel coronavirus are nervous.

Tara, a U.S. citizen based in Barcelona, is 37 weeks pregnant and has spent the last week alone at home with her 1-year-old and 4-year-old. “Social life in Spain mainly happens outside,” she told TPG, “and it’s been like herding a bunch of high-strung rabbits into a playpen. I’ve been trying to buy groceries on Amazon Prime for days now. There are no delivery times open. Slots are opened up daily at midnight, but I haven’t yet gotten hungry enough to disrupt my sleep.”

Her husband, a pilot, was finally able to get home Tuesday; she has a scheduled cesarean delivery on March 31.

“I’m mostly worried that if I need extra support post-surgery, there won’t be any hospital beds or resources, ” she said.

La Sagrada Familia is closed to visitors because of the potential risk of catching COVID-19. (Photo by Xavi Torrent/Getty Images)
La Sagrada Familia is closed to visitors because of the potential risk of catching COVID-19. (Photo by Xavi Torrent/Getty Images)

Fears for the economy

As to be expected, many are worried about the effects this lockdown will have on the Spanish economy — especially business owners. The Spanish government is furiously working to issue unemployment payments to workers who have been temporarily laid off due to closures, and has frozen mortgage payments for affected citizens.

Eliza Coolsma runs a yoga studio, The Natural Yogi, in Madrid. After the forced closure of her business, she’s currently at home in her apartment with her husband and 3-year-old son. She’s worried not only about the virus, but also about how long her studio may be closed.

“I’m curious if the government will be helping small businesses,” she said. “Luckily, my husband is working home for now, I’m shifting my business online and we’re just doing the best we can.”

Restaurant owners are already reeling from the fallout just a few days into the lockdown.

Fernando Ruiz, a chef and restaurant owner, wasn’t fazed by the virus at first, thinking it was just a flu. But as reservations dwindled and Spain mandated closures, he was forced to shut his restaurant, Paipái, which is normally so popular it books up weeks in advance.

Then the panic set in. “I had to fire 17 people today,” he said. “I have to pay vendors. I’m upset I didn’t take this more seriously. I’m worried if this goes on, I won’t reopen. Or worse, both our health and the economy will be destroyed. I hope other countries respond quicker and take this threat seriously. It’s real.”

Tips for surviving a quarantine

If you’re in self-quarantine — or worried you may experience a forced quarantine soon — don’t panic. Obviously, stock up on essentials (within reason — please don’t hoard, as other people need supplies, too).

I wish I’d prepared better in other ways. I should have brought more things to do, like puzzles or games. I did purchase an adult coloring book, a puzzle (now I wish I’d bought five) and a set of paints, but I should have considered a larger variety of activities that don’t include just binging on Netflix (but absolutely no judgment if that’s what your quarantine plans include).

For those who want to do at-home workouts, pick up some bands, weights, a jump rope, a yoga mat and other at-home fitness equipment. I luckily already had those items at home, but I have several friends here wishing they’d made those purchases. This is a great time to invest in some new books or that Kindle Unlimited or Audible subscription you’ve been eyeing.

Bottom line

Things escalated extremely quickly in Spain. Within a week, I went from life as normal to life under lockdown. At the time of writing, over 11,000 people in Spain are confirmed to be infected, but the number is likely much higher. The Spanish government is saying if you’re showing symptoms, but aren’t short of breath, to just stay home as hospitals are overflowing. Around 500 have died.

Although I can’t be sure, it seems as if the situation is likely to continue beyond just 15 days, possibly even months. I hope that’s not the case. For now, I’ll continue trying to keep my spirits high, heading outdoors on my terrace to clap each night with the rest of my neighbors.

Featured image of Camino de Ronda during the state of emergency by Carlos Gil/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images.

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