Spain's government invoked a state of emergency on Friday to reimpose a partial lockdown for several million people in and around Madrid, one of Europe's worst COVID-19 hotspots after a court had struck down the measures.
The move, with immediate effect, escalated a standoff between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's government and the conservative-led Madrid regional chief who calls the curbs illegal, excessive and disastrous for the economy.
Patience has its limit, Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference, chastising the regional authority for inaction. It is important that the level of infection in Madrid does not extend to the rest of Spain.
The government said an extra 7,000 policemen would be deployed for enforcement. But many of the 3.8 million people affected in the capital city and eight satellite towns were bemused and cars continued to pour out for a holiday weekend.
Following a Health Ministry order, Madrid authorities last week reluctantly barred all non-essential travel in and out of the city and nearby towns. The region had 723 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks to Oct 8, according to the World Health Organization, making it Europe's second densest cluster after Andorra.
But instead of a blanket restriction, the Madrid region chief Isabel Diaz Ayuso wanted tailored restrictions according to neighborhoods' contagion levels.
A Madrid court sided with her on Thursday, effectively suspending the restrictions until the government responded with its two-week emergency order.
We had an alternative plan we have been defending until the last moment, but it has not been possible, which is a pity. The state of emergency was totally avoidable, Madrid region spokesman Ignacio Aguado told reporters.
TV footage showed lines of cars on the main highways out of Madrid on Friday afternoon for what is usually one of the busiest weekends for domestic tourism as Spaniards mark Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas on Oct 12, 1492.
Spain has reported 848,324 coronavirus cases - the highest in Western Europe - and 32,688 deaths. Its tourism-dependent economy is set for a more than 11% contraction this year in the worst recession since the civil war.