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Spain halts Italy flights, closes schools as virus cases spike

Spain banned all air traffic from Italy Tuesday, closed schools and blocked fans from football matches after being caught off-guard by a near tripling of coronavirus infections in less than 48 hours.

The emergency measures, which will remain in force for two weeks, were laid out as Spain scrambled to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“All direct flights from airports in Italy to Spain are banned from midnight (2300 GMT) until March 25,” the official state bulletin said, with the only exceptions being planes carrying medical or humanitarian aid.

Although far behind Italy, the hardest-hit European country, Spain saw its number of cases jump from around 590 on Sunday evening to 1,622 infections on Tuesday at 1200 GMT, with the death toll more than doubling from 16 to 35.

Officials in Madrid, which now has nearly 800 cases and where 21 people have died, suspended classes for at least two weeks in a move reportedly affecting some 1.5 million children and young people.

The move, which comes into force Wednesday, affects all educational establishments, from nursery schools to colleges and universities — with a similar ban in Vitoria-Gasteiz, capital of the Basque Country as well as in the northern region of La Rioja.

Also Tuesday, Spain’s La Liga said fans would be barred from all first and second division football matches for at least two weeks in a bid to limit the spread of the virus.

Similar measures have already affected several other European matches involving Spanish teams and would be in force for Barcelona’s Champions League tie against Napoli at Camp Nou on March 18.

“We think that with these measures, we can avoid reaching a situation like in Italy,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference.

– Supermarket chaos –

In Madrid, all parliamentary sessions were postponed this week after the far-right Vox party said its deputy leader had tested positive for the virus, two days after attending a party event with some 9,000 people.

The government also issued a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people in the worst-hit regions, and the Madrid authorities said all public transport would be disinfected daily across the city of 6.5 million people in a move affecting buses, the metro and inter-urban trains.

With the government significantly stepping up its response to the crisis, there was a surge in shoppers at supermarkets across Madrid with many racing to stock up on essentials, some of whom had several trollies loaded with provisions.

At a supermarket in northern Madrid, many shelves were empty after a run on rice, lentils, chickpeas, beans, eggs, flour and cleaning products, with one employee saying staff had to come in four hours early to handle the demand.

“We’ve got nothing left,” said employee Clara Badena.

“It’s crazy.”

But the Spanish association of major distributors insisted there was no danger of shortages with the supply of goods “guaranteed”.