Gibraltar, the small British territory on the southern coast of Spain, was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic this winter, but has now become one of the most open places in Europe.
With its densely concentrated population and the frequent movement of people across the border from Spain, COVID-19 infected 4,000 of its 33,000 residents, killing 93.
The small but crowded population that made the coronavirus so dangerous there also helped launch its vaccination campaign, and the government hopes to have all residents over the age of 16 vaccinated by the end of this month.
Its successful vaccination campaign is largely due to Pfizer-BioNTech shipments of injections from the UK.
This has meant a recent loosening of restrictions, and could be a preview of what the UK hopes to see when a sufficiently high percentage of its 66 million residents have been immunized.
“The fact that we were out at night seemed so surreal.”
Gibraltar citizens can now enjoy dining out, with alcohol, with more friends. The curfew runs from midnight to 5 a.m., but could be lifted entirely on March 25 if the numbers stay low.
“I immediately booked a table for dinner at Piccadilly Gardens,” official Jared Negron tells Euronews.
“Obviously I went to dinner with my social bubble. The food, the atmosphere and the fact that we were out at night seemed so surreal. “
He says he expects a “good, COVID-free summer” there, with many tourists vaccinated to boost the economy.
Currently, citizens or residents of Gibraltar can enter, along with those who have proof of work in the region, but there are strict health checks, especially for those who have been in a country at risk, who must be quarantined.
However, all this could change soon, as the territory awaits the return of tourism, a key industry.
With few restrictions currently in place, artist Makedonda Shutova hopes another will be lifted: “The extra step I’d like to take is to stop wearing a mask. I miss the beautiful faces and smiles of the people. Most of the masks are just masks. fabric with filters in there and I don’t think they have any effect, especially in hot weather. “
Another official, Stuart Greene, told Euronews that he had gone out with his family to enjoy a meal and then went shopping in town.
“Aside from wearing masks when we shopped in town, it seemed like we were almost back to normal,” he says.
But Gibraltar’s fight to regain normalcy is just beginning. It still faces the many challenges of reopening in a globalized world with unequal access to vaccines and the emergence of new virus variants.
Health Minister Samantha Sacramento has been working on contingency plans, including boosting vaccines with a booster.
“Being vaccinated is absolutely no carte blanche and then behaving without restrictions. But then we also have to go back to being a little more human, to be able to breathe fresh air,” the minister said in an office atop the local hospital. .
“It is ‘Operation Freedom’, but with caution,” he added.
Finding that balance can be difficult for a territory linked to both Spain and the United Kingdom. As a British territory, Gibraltar has received five shipments of vaccines from London, mostly the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. A handful of AstraZeneca injections have also been reserved for those possibly vulnerable to severe allergic reactions.
In theory, expanding Gibraltar’s limited flights with the UK, which is also rolling out high-speed vaccines, could be done by requiring tests and quarantines upon entry. But the contagious variant of the virus that was first found in Britain has been cause for concern.
In Spain, restrictions have tamed a year-end coronavirus wave that hit public hospitals. But, like much of the European Union, Spain is struggling with a slow rollout of vaccines that it hopes to immunize 33 million residents, or 70% of its population.
Most Gibraltarians are eager to travel. With an area of only 6.7 square kilometers, a territory only slightly larger than the Vatican and Monaco, most of it dominated by the imposing presence of its famous Rock, Gibraltar can sometimes feel claustrophobic.
“I have been in Rock for a couple of months, without having set foot in Spain. That is a big part of our lives, crossing the border, visiting new cities every weekend. That is what I am most waiting for.”, Said Christian Segovia, a 24-year-old engineer who works in a shipping company.
With more than 15,000 fully vaccinated people and another 11,000 awaiting their second dose, 20-year-olds are now being called in for their first vaccinations. Non-Gibraltarians who come to work in healthcare or other front-line jobs are already vaccinated, and authorities are now trying to vaccinate all remaining cross-border workers.
Vanesa Olivero travels every day, crossing on foot the runway of the airport that separates Gibraltar from the Linea de la Concepción in Spain. Some 15,000 workers made the same trip before the pandemic, but the numbers are lower now because tourism remains closed.
The 40-year-old, who sells tobacco and spirits in one of Gibraltar’s many duty-free shops, says she can’t wait to get her shots because facing customers puts her at risk. She suffers from asthma, has two daughters and older relatives to care for.
“Just tell me where and when and I’ll present my two arms to you,” joked Olivero. “I want all this to end, to return to normality, to be able to give a hug, give a kiss, go have a few drinks with friends.”
Soccer with fans
Gibraltar has issued vaccination cards to people receiving their second injection. It is also developing an app that stores vaccine data and test results that authorities want to link with other platforms elsewhere to jumpstart international travel. However, critics say those passports discriminate against those who cannot access vaccines, especially in the poorest countries.
Gino Jiménez, president of the Gibraltar Catering Association, has some doubts, but welcomes the app if it helps attract foreign tourists. His restaurant, a popular hangout for breakfast and lunch, follows health guidelines to appeal to those who are “still testing the waters to see if it’s safe to go out.”
“We are a very close-knit and very sociable community. And there is nothing like sitting at the table having a coffee and talking, ”said Jiménez, who is pressuring the government to quickly vaccinate the nearly 2,000 restaurant and pub employees, mostly Spanish.
The waiters wear two masks, tables are reserved for a maximum of six, and there is no alcohol sale in the afternoon.
After reopening schools, delaying the nightly curfew from 10 p.m. to midnight, and eliminating the mandatory wearing of masks in low-density non-commercial areas, the next big thing The Rock is looking forward to is the Gibraltar football match against the Netherlands on March 30. The qualifier for the World Cup will be a test for the resumption of massive events, allowing 50% of the capacity of the stadium and requiring that fans demonstrate immunity.
While they wait, Gibraltarians enjoy their new normal. At Chatham Counterguard, an 18th-century defensive bastion now a strip of pubs and restaurants, a dozen colleagues from the Collegians Gibraltar hockey team celebrate their first training session since November with pints.
“This is what normality is … to be able to have a beer with your own people,” said Adrián Hernández, 51. “God, I missed this!”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism