Sorry, Americans, You Haven’t Even Had a Real Lockdown Yet

Here in Spain, even easing measures leaves them stricter than in most of the United States.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A hair salon reopens in Spain during the coronavirus pandemic
After almost two months of total lockdown, Spain is tentatively starting to return to a semblance of normal, as in this newly reopened hair salon in Burgos on May 4. Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty Images

MADRID—Spain began easing its draconian, six-week coronavirus lockdown this week, and I still somehow found a way to get in trouble with the cops—again.

MADRID—Spain began easing its draconian, six-week coronavirus lockdown this week, and I still somehow found a way to get in trouble with the cops—again.

We’d taken the dog for a walk in the early evening. The kids had been trapped inside—not a moment outside, not a foot out the door—since the national state of alarm began in mid-March, one of the severest lockdown regimes in Europe. At the end of April, the government relented and said children could get an hour a day outside between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

But the government’s rules and regulations for the methodical reopening of the country change seemingly by the day. The patrol car screeched to the curb, the officer tapping his watch. After 7 p.m., it turns out, the streets are reserved for the over-70s. So are the mornings, it seems. Who knew? Apparently we should have been speed-refreshing the webpage of the Official State Bulletin before reaching for a leash, I guess. We were threatened with a fine, then sent scurrying back home.

As many U.S. states rush headlong to reopen after a short, partial, and none-too-comprehensive simulacrum of a lockdown, Spain’s experience is instructive. Even with this partial lifting, Spain’s measures remain—like those of most other European nations—far stricter than those of the United States. By global standards, the United States hasn’t really had a lockdown at all, only a spotty and inconsistent set of measures that it’s already abandoning.

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In Spain, everybody nationwide has been on a stay-at-home order since March, and that will remain the case until almost the end of May, perhaps longer. The second-hardest-hit country in the world from the coronavirus by reported infections, Spain is taking calibrated (if confusing) baby steps to get back to normal little by agonizingly little. Meanwhile, a slew of U.S. states are basically going back to normal, with restaurants reopening as usual in many states and gyms and even movie theaters back in business in others. The White House, which has punted on any national coordination in battling the pandemic, has meanwhile decided to ignore the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for a responsible reopening.

Officially, even though the worst of the virus outbreak here came weeks ago, we’re still in Phase Zero of the reopening. That means a total stay-at-home order, with some exceptions for exercise (armadas of joggers have suspiciously materialized on the streets around our house), essential shopping, and a few new treats, like appointment-only haircuts (apparently only for the well-connected) or a return to takeout orders in restaurants. Some small shops can reopen, provided they only have one customer at a time and disinfect the store between customers, and again at midday, and again at closing, which seems like a major undertaking.

It may seem harsh, but it’s largely in line with other European countries as they emerge from weeks or months of near-total hibernation. Italy just started Phase Two of its opening, with takeaways from restaurants and some public transit; German barbers, offering appointment-only haircuts, are swamped; small retail stores are tentatively opening up in Greece. The United Kingdom, late to shut down, remains locked down for now.

But next week, we could make it to Phase One. (Spoiler: We won’t, not in Madrid or Barcelona. Another couple weeks of lockdown for the worst-hit areas, the government has decided.) Nearly every region in Spain has asked the central government to let them begin a very partial reopening starting Monday. And it would be partial: Nobody can leave their local province or be in groups of more than ten; outdoor bars, markets, and churches, like public transit, will have strictly reduced visitor quotas and distancing measures. Still no restaurant dining, or movie theaters, or soccer games. Just to make sure nobody lets their guard down, the government extended the state of alarm until May 24 and is talking about further extending it throughout the summer, if opposition parties don’t rebel entirely by then.

The driver behind the push to get back to something resembling normal is, of course, the same in Spain as anywhere else in Europe or in the United States. Not only are parents desperate, but so are businesses. Economies everywhere have gotten the Rasputin treatment: repeatedly poisoned, shot several times, and dumped in a river. Spain has posted record jumps in unemployment and slumps in GDP; activity in both manufacturing and services in Spain, as in other European countries, has literally fallen off the charts. The United States seems to be faring even worse, with well over 33 million fresh out of work and the country on pace for an unprecedented contraction of perhaps 30 percent or more in second-quarter GDP.

The big difference is the timing. Spain is just now starting to take the first steps toward a very partial reopening, now that new daily cases are about 8 percent of what they were at the peak. In the United States, where new daily cases are still about 70 percent of what they were in the darkest days, and where more than 2,500 people are still dying every day, states are rushing to crowd people into restaurants, onto beaches, and into gyms and theaters. Spain is gingerly limping back toward normal after having bent the curve by a severe lockdown; the United States mostly never bothered to lock down, didn’t really bend the curve, and is already raring to reopen.

We’ll see over the summer how the differing approaches play out. Spain’s opposition parties have lost patience with the government’s go-slow approach and insistence on maintaining the state of alarm; the head of the main opposition party, Pablo Casado of the People’s Party, said extending it any more at this point “makes no sense.” It will be hard for the Socialist government to force through further extensions over the summer, which means the stage-managed, step-by-step opening could fall apart just as it gets going.

In the United States, the Trump administration seems fine with allowing a 9/11’s worth of death every single day as long as there is the hope of some sort of economic uptick before the election in November. But while the virus’s scythe keeps swinging, many Americans will still be staying indoors whenever possible—even as just enough decide, or are forced, to go out to make sure there are enough victims to go around.

In the meantime, I’ve got to find that leash and round up the kids: We only have a couple hours to step outside till the paddy wagons come circling back.

May 8: This article was updated to reflect the extension of the lockdown.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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