Spaniards warned against hugging friends after birthday party blamed for spike in infections

James Badcock
Sun bathers have begun returning to Spanish beaches, but social distancing measures are still in place - Javier Etxezarreta/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

Spaniards have been warned against parties and hugging friends and relatives as the country’s coronavirus restrictions begin to be lifted, allowing greater freedom to enjoy social gatherings.

A birthday party attended by double the number permitted has been cited as a leading cause of a sudden spike in cases in Lleida, Catalonia, prompting regional health authorities to postpone the city’s progression from phase 1 to phase 2 of Spain’s lockdown exit plan.

“We are all dying to enjoy gatherings with our families,” said Fernando Simón, head of the Spanish health ministry’s Covid-19 emergency department when asked about how the Lleida birthday party had led to all 20 people in attendance being infected with coronavirus.

“An innocent little party can lead to an outbreak that can spark another wave of the epidemic. We are not yet in the new normal because we have to move slowly; there is still danger,” Dr Simón added.

Catalonia’s regional health department noted that the Lleida area had seen new cases rise dramatically from 45 in the seven days up to May 13 to 142 last week.

Regional health head Aba Vergés said it was best to “remain prudent” and wait another week before requesting that Lleida be allowed to reach phase 2 of Spain’s three-part de-escalation.

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In phase 1, social gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed, but people are asked to respect the safety distance of two metres.

According to local officials, four people who were already infected with Covid-19 attended the birthday party in Lleida, which led to all 20 people present testing positive.

Last weekend in Lleida also saw local police break up a party of 26 people in a nightclub that was meant to be closed due to lockdown rules.

All of Spain has now reached at least phase 1 of the exit strategy as the number of new coronavirus cases has dropped below 100 a day across the country, with total confirmed positives having reached close to 238,000 and the official death toll above 27,000.

But experts warn that vigilance is crucial to prevent a rapid uptick and a return to the chaos in hospitals seen in March and April.

“This transition is crucial and we must be careful not to slip up. If we can keep the control, that will allow us to open up bit by bit. The more time that passes, the health system will recover more functions and capacity,” said Ildefonso Hernández, spokesman for the Spanish Public Health Society.

A cafe worker checks body temperature of client as side-walk restaurants, cafes and bars are allowed to open after 9 weeks of severe lockdown  -  Anadolu Agency/ Anadolu 

Specifically, as millions prepare for the first weekend since Spain’s lockdown was eased in the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, health experts are insisting on the importance of social distancing even on festive occasions.

Dr Simón said that hugs and kisses are best avoided, partly due to the risk involved in contact and also because it breaches the psychological barrier that helps us maintain social distancing.

If people must hug, “let it be as brief as possible”, Dr Simón said.

Spain’s traditions of leisurely meals and long chats in the aftermath are also seen as particular flashpoints for group infection, with experts pointing out that exhaled cigarette smoke can contain droplets with the virus, as well as exhalations from speaking loudly and laughter without face masks being in place.

“A long post-prandial session with everyone sitting close together is a perfect scenario for an outbreak if someone is infected, and nobody can know for sure that they are not,” said Professor Hernández.

Health authorities advise people to keep their masks on, sit well apart and not share cutlery or serve from shared dishes, while one person should pour the drink to avoid multiple people touching the same bottle or jug.