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Madrid's thriving tapas bars emptied by virus scare

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Madrid (AFP)

Fewer and fewer locals could be seen having a beer and tapas at Madrid's much-loved bars and restaurants this week as residents heeded calls to stay home to halt the deadly coronavirus epidemic.

But with the virus spreading relentlessly, and Madrid bearing the brunt of the infections, the city has imposed increasingly tight restrictions with officials poised to shutter all outdoor terraces.

And it has recommended that all bars and restaurants take their own decision to close.

Even a group of workers could still be found clustered around the bar at the Paraiso del Jamon near the city's Puerta del Sol square.

And at the Pascual cafe in the La Latina neighbourhood, pensioner Mauricio was enjoying his last coffee at the bar on Friday morning.

"Today is the last day this bar will be open, better have breakfast at home tomorrow," the 71-year-old told AFP.

At the Casa Camacho, a tiny tapas bar founded in 1929 which is normally packed to the rafters, there were only around six locals and a handful of tourists on Thursday evening.

"The panic has set in and it's going to get worse," said Victor Rodrieguez, a 43-year-old engineer enjoying a glass of vermouth.

"I sent my friend a messaging saying: let's have a drink before they ban us! We walked here without taking public transport," he told AFP.

"And we've got clean hands!"

In a public address earlier in the day, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the virus would only be defeated if people changed their habits and demonstrated "responsibility and social discipline".

But not everyone was in a hurry to hunker down at home.

"We're working from home because they've told us to but I haven't changed my lifestyle," said one, a 32-year-old oil and gas analyst.

"Perhaps we're not taking it very seriously because we think that if we get ill, we'll pull through."

At the bar, where tapas of chorizo and anchovies are laid out behind a glass counter, waiter Pedro Zambade says all portions were "served to each person individually" meaning if they wanted to share, it was up to them.

And he's aware that he may soon be required to take some enforced holiday.

- 'We live in bars' -

At the Rocafria bar and restaurant in the city centre, head waiter Andres Sierra was still serving some of his regulars.

In Spain, bars are "a public service, a part of our culture. We live in bars," said this 58-year-old, who is wearing a black shirt.

"You might not have a house but you will always have a bar where you can stop."

Whether you go out with your wife, your kids or your grandmother, it was always a case of: "Let's go to the bar," he said.

"They can shut everything except the bars!" said Sierra, before quickly adding: "That's a joke.. if they shut them for a while, that's no problem."

- 'Quarantine me inside a bar!' -

In Italy, the worst-hit country after China, where more than 1,000 people have died after catching the virus, all the bars and restaurants have closed. And Belgium is preparing to do the same.

But there is still a good deal of black humour flying around.

"If they have to quarantine us, then let it be inside a bar!" jokes Angela Herrera, who was sharing a plate of fried potatoes and peppers with a soldier at a table in Rocafria on Thursday evening.

"He's my partner so we're not bothered if we infect each other."

Madrid boasts more than 18,000 bars and restaurants in its 9,000 or so streets where thirsty punters can grab a beer or drink a coffee, with such watering holes often open until as late as 3:00 am.

But on Thursday evening, customers were few and far between with the Stop Madrid bar on Hortaleza Street almost deserted.

"Normally we have about 50 or 60 people here but this evening, there are only five Brazilians here," sighed the waiter Jersel Villalba.

"Life goes on but it's not the same."

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