BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Despite vaccination rates that are the envy of other governments, Spain and Portugal are facing the harsh truth that with the new omicron variant rampant, this winter vacation won’t will not be a moment of unrestrained joy.
Portugal announced a series of new Christmas and New Year restrictions on Tuesday, making working from home compulsory and closing nightclubs and bars from Saturday evening. In addition, a negative test result must be presented to enter Portuguese cinemas, theaters, sporting events, weddings and baptisms until at least January 9.
Portugal will impose exceptional measures on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as well as New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, including having a negative test result to enter restaurants and public celebrations. And on New Year’s Eve, no more than 10 people will be able to gather on the street, and it will be forbidden to drink alcohol outside.
This happens despite nearly 87% of the Portuguese population being fully vaccinated, due to the omicron variant, which is spreading across Europe.
Spain, too, had hoped for a relaxed festive Christmas, as 80% of its population of 47 million have been vaccinated – including 90% of those over the age of 12 – and face masks are widely used.
But the incredibly rapid spread of the omicron variant is starting to put pressure on Spanish hospitals, even though experts agree that being vaccinated still dramatically reduces the risk of getting seriously ill.
Catalonia, home to the northeast city of Barcelona, is poised to become the first Spanish region to reinstate serious limitations and put a damper on holiday cheer. One in four people hospitalized in Spain with COVID-19 are in Catalonia.
“We were all hoping to spend these Christmas holidays with our family and loved ones, but unfortunately we are not in this situation,” Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès said on Tuesday. “You don’t have to look at the numbers. We all know people who have been infected.
Catalan health authorities have asked the courts to authorize a battery of measures, including a new nighttime curfew from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., a limit of 10 people per social gathering, the closure of nightclubs and a cap on restaurants at 50. % of indoor seating and stores, gymnasiums and theaters at 70% capacity. If approved, the rules would come into force on Christmas Eve and last for 15 days, wiping out most New Year’s Eve parties.
“These measures are absolutely necessary,” said Catalonia’s regional health chief, Josep Argimon. “Infections are up 100% over the past week.”
Spain is back in the high-risk zone with more than 600 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, more than double the cumulative cases seen before the winter holidays last year. The omicron strain rose from 5% of new cases in Spain to 47% in one week.
Catalonia’s decision comes a day before Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will meet via video with the heads of Spain’s 17 regions to discuss new COVID-19 restrictions. Medical groups and experts are calling for more action to be taken.
“The increase in the diagnosis of new cases in clinics and hospitals … may in the short and medium term lead to a further collapse of the health system,” the Spanish association of pulmonologists said last week.
But it appears most Spanish regions are reluctant to go as far as Catalonia, which has almost 30% of its intensive care beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
This has forced many families to take their health into their own hands. So many Spaniards rely on self-testing that there is a shortage of self-administered COVID-19 antigen tests.
Madrid’s official College of Pharmacy told The Associated Press that demand in November for home testing kits had increased by 500% in a month. Deliveries were still arriving in pharmacies but they were flying off the shelves.
Among those looking for COVID-19 test kits was Eulalia Rodríguez. Her family were planning to welcome a relative from abroad for Christmas and they were struggling to find the tests after inquiring at four different pharmacies in Madrid.
“It’s really disappointing,” Rodríguez said. “At least they give you some peace of mind.”
Parra reported from Madrid. Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed.
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