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Coronavirus turns Madrid into ghost town

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Madrid (AFP)

Madrid became a ghost town on Saturday with shops closed and streets and squares deserted as Spain recorded hundreds of new coronavirus infections.

An eerie calm descended on the Spanish capital as well as Rome, Dublin and other European cities as people obeyed strict government measures designed to stem the spread of the disease and stayed home.

Rome and the rest of Italy have been on lockdown since Thursday and the Madrid region, which is home to around 6.6 million people and has recorded the bulk of Spain's infections, followed suit on Saturday.

Local authorities ordered all shops to close except for supermarkets and pharmacies as of Saturday for two weeks.

Standing on the edge of the central Puerta del Sol square, one of the city's main tourist landmarks, Paco Higueras had a hard time believing how empty it is.

"It is distressing when we are so used to seeing a crowd here," the restaurant employee, who wore gloves and a face mask to protect himself against the virus, told AFP.

Spain has recorded over 5,700 cases of coronavirus and 183 deaths, making it the hardest hit country in Europe after Italy.

The centre of the Spanish capital, whose bars and restaurants are usually packed on weekends, was deserted.

In the majestic Plaza Mayor square and its neighbouring narrow streets all outdoor terraces were closed.

Aside from police vehicles and municipal street sweepers, only a few tourists could be seen.

Signs on the doors of restaurant and bars said "Closed due to social responsibility".

- Supermarkets stocked -

Outside pharmacies customers queued a safe distance from each other and employees handed out gel for people to disinfect their hands with after paying.

Business at the restaurant where Higueras works plunged by 80 percent this week before it was forced to close.

"We have to accept what is happening," he said.

Elena Garcia Manes defied the fear of stepping outside to donate blood and answer an appeal for donations because stocks at hospitals have run low.

"We are four roommates and when we heard the appeal, we organised ourselves to come," the 25-year-old, who works at a communications agency, said as she stood outside a Red Cross bus that serves as a blood collection station at the Puerta del Sol.

A Red Cross volunteer, Khuni Hiko Shimizu, said they expected to "see a lot fewer people" at the station.

Only supermarkets were busy as residents of the Spanish capital rushed to stock up even though distributors have said there will be ho shortages during the lockdown period.

Shelves dedicated to toilet paper, pasta and canned food are empty in many supermarkets.

- Tourists trapped -

Tourists feel trapped in a city where all major museums, including the Prado, which displays masterpieces by Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez, as well as the Reina Sofia, home to Pablo Picasso's anti-war masterpiece "Guernica", have closed.

"We didn't expect everything to close overnight," said Xenia Damianaki, a Greek tourist who arrived on Thursday with her husband and daughter.

She now fears that the authorities will "close the border" and will try to leave on Sunday.

Rome's historic centre was once again almost completely deserted on Saturday, with empty buses among the few vehicles on the roads.

The silence will be broken by the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere which will ring its bells at 8pm, along with all the other churches in the quarter, "in an expression of... solidarity and prayer" with all those affected by the virus.

In Ireland, meanwhile, schools and universities closed on Thursday for two weeks while mass gatherings are banned and social distancing -- including remote working -- has been strongly recommended.

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