Long before the term word COVID-19 seized up the travel, tourism and global sports worlds, Andrew Hood was editor of the Vail Daily from 1991 to 93, and in that role and that particular era he was typically more focused on chasing “Widespread Panic” than the fallout from “global pandemics”.
Speaking to RealVail.com in the COVID-19 hotspot of Eagle County, Hood — who for the past 18 years has worked in Spain as the European editor for the Boulder-based cycling publication VeloNews — took time out last week from tracking the brutal impacts of the virus on the cycling world to offer up some cautionary tales from one coronavirus hotspot to another.
As of Saturday afternoon, 1,980 people have been tested for the virus in Vail and surrounding Eagle County and 478 cases have been confirmed, with 36 hospitalizations and five deaths. Overall in Colorado, there have been 6,893 confirmed cases, 1,376 hospitalizations and 274 deaths, while the U.S. leads the world with 530,000 cases and more than 20,000 deaths.
But Spain is second in cases (163,000) and third with more than 16,600 deaths as of Saturday. Italy is second on this dreadful list with more than 19,400 deaths.
A U.S. citizen, Hood splits his year between Leon, Spain, the United States, Italy, France and whatever other international bike race or cycling event he might be chasing. He’s married to a Spanish woman, Maria Jesus (M.J.) Alvarez, who works for Catholic Charities and has been deemed an essential worker during her country’s growing crisis.
Just as in the United States, Spanish officials have been accused of ignoring the pandemic until it was too late, moving too slowly to shut down Spain’s vibrant social life, and generally not heeding the warnings already coming out of northern Italy in late February. But an extreme shutdown since March 14 may now finally be turning the tide as Spanish officials consider allowing some non-essential businesses to reopen on Monday.
Here’s a Q&A with Hood conducted by Real Vail on April 4:
RV: Describe how your lockdown in Leon began.
AH: Spain’s lockdown started the night of March 14th. So up until then it was just like life as normal, mate. It was the weirdest thing because that weekend, M.J. and I were looking at going to ski in the Pyrenees. Then we decided not to go because it was going to rain instead of snow. So Friday night we’re at the bars, out having tapas. The coronavirus was taking off in Italy and it was surreal because it was starting to flare up in Spain, but just like in the States, it went from 75 cases to 200 the next week to 700 the third week. It just didn’t seem like it was this eminent threat.
And then the next night at midnight we’d actually gone out to see a movie or a show or something, came home and there was a national address and the prime minister [Pedro Sánchez] came on and said effective immediately it’s called the estado alarmo – the state of alarm — and basically just a 24-hour lockdown, very strict right off the bat. The only reason to go outside is to go buy food, go to the pharmacy or to walk your dog or go to work. And even just two weeks ago, they basically closed down every business. So, pretty extreme.
RV: Have your local hospitals been overwhelmed?
AH: The situation here in Spain has gotten grim. It’s the same as Italy in Spain, and kind of like it is in the States, where you have a couple of real hotspots where the hospitals are overwhelmed. The big problem in Spain is in Madrid and Barcelona. So the hospitals there [where there] are those videos that are coming out where people are lined up, just lying in the hallways trying to get attended and they’re having to choose who gets intubated and not, that’s only happening in maybe Madrid … There are a few cities that are completely overwhelmed, whereas where I live [in Leon], I’ve heard the hospital still has space in the emergency room.
RV: But is that coming to your corner of Spain?
AH: We finished three weeks of this 24-7 lockdown [which was extended to April 27], so they are seeing this curve everyone keeps talking about; it has flattened out right now. So, people are hopeful. The number of new cases is decreasing, and the number of deaths has plateaued out.
RV: Unlike Spain, the United States has not issued a national stay-at-home order, leaving it up to the states. Will that make the pandemic much worse here, and is that the biggest difference between Spain and the U.S. in how the two nations are responding to the COVID-19 crisis?
AH: The big difference between Spain and the USA, with the exception of say New York or San Francisco is, look where you guys live. You guys live in a little house or half a duplex or whatever. You have your car, you have your yard, everyone has a garage, people aren’t packed in in the States like they are in Europe. And that’s I think the big difference in the contagion spread, right? My apartment is probably the size of like your den and your kitchen; that’s the size of my whole house. And that’s how people live, right? I mean that’s why people live in the bars. That’s why people go outside on the paseo, they stroll every day. That’s such a big part of the European lifestyle because we’re living in little shoe boxes, so the social life … like no one ever goes to someone’s house to hang out. It’s like, no, I’ll meet you at the bar. I’ll be at the cafe, the park, wherever. So that’s why I think the spread has been especially steep in like Spain and Italy. Germany and Belgium and Northern Europe is a little bit different — not quite American style, but it’s not as packed in like some of these Mediterranean countries.
RV: What other differences are there?
AH: The death rate in Spain, it’s like 70 and above. The elderly population accounts for 80% to 85% of the deaths in Spain. It’s a huge impact on the elderly people. But I’d say the overall baseline in Spain, dude, is way healthier than it is in America. I’m watching the American news where you’re seeing people that have these preexisting conditions with diabetes, obesity, and all those things that are going to cause a much wider spread of the demographics than in Europe where people live to be 85 because they’re healthy. I mean the average person here … you don’t see fat people in Europe like you do in the United States.
RV: So the elderly in Spain, but it’s also been particularly devastating to elderly male smokers in Italy, I’ve read. Is that true in Spain?
AH: Yeah, and if you’re a smoker and you’re overweight, you want to wash your hands a lot. You do not want to leave the house.
RV: We have these sort of voluntary stay-at-home orders in place in Colorado, but I’ve heard things are much more strict in Europe. True?
AH: The last three weeks, I’ve gone out maybe two times a week, because here you’re not even allowed to go outside your house. The police are issuing fines and you can’t get in your car and drive around. Everyone has to stay at your house, so you can go out to the grocery store. So twice a week I’ve gone out, walked down to the market, and I’ll buy food for the next couple days and walk home. And that’s all I have done for three weeks.
RV: Can you recreate at all?
AH: No, you cannot even go outside. You can walk your dog, but all the parks are closed. They have a lot of city parks here. I live along the river and the whole river is like full of trails and hiking, walking, paseo kind of things. Those are all shut down. All the big city parks here — I have one right by my house — that’s all closed down. And if you’re walking the street, you walk your dog. That’s the only reason you go outside. And over the weekends they put these big roadblocks out for people trying to sneak out to their country homes. Cops are giving huge fines. They’re even arresting people. It’s very strict, man. It’s way stricter here than it is in the States.
RV: Is that because Spain’s leaders, once they finally took the virus seriously, have responded much more aggressively at the national level?
AH: It’s been very strong and consistent signaling from the government, central government, and all the political opposition has kind of lined up behind the government in terms of like if it was war or whatever it is; it’s not the time for having partisan fighting or bickering. But the big issue right now is there have started to be some complaints about how they dropped the ball. It was taking off in Italy and in Spain they’re still having these big soccer matches and an international women’s day march in Madrid where there’s like 3 million women and people marching in the streets in Madrid and that was a disaster because that was just an incubator for coronavirus.
RV: How will Spain deal with this economically?
AH: The big problem for Spain is there’s a fracture in the [European Union] about how to deal with this issue because Spain by itself doesn’t have deep pockets to ride out another [downturn]. The economic fallout is going to be huge. Businesses have been closed for three weeks, and just like in America, everyone’s losing their jobs. But I will say, there’s protections that are in place with the European safety net that are much better than the kind of a patchwork in the United States where you might have one business that does the right thing, where the other business just fires everybody the day after the shutdown. So it’s definitely a different approach. Europeans are more united. Every country is kind of doing its own thing, but they’re all kind of going together in terms of looking for a way out of this. They’re trying to organize European-wide testing and an economic package, where it sounds like it’s just completely fractured in the States.
RV: Is there a sense of abandonment on this issue in Europe when it comes to the United States, which in the past has been such a strong global leader in times of international crisis?
AH: Well, [President Donald] Trump has been attacking the EU for the last three years — been attacking NATO, been attacking the EU. So, the general feeling is the Europeans, just from what I’m reading in El Pais – the New York Times of the Spanish papers — that the United States can’t be counted on to be the world leaders and that Europe is getting its head around the fact that it’s got to kind of take care of itself now. Which some people think that’s a good thing — like maybe it’s time for the Europeans to take care of themselves. Who knows? But there’s certainly a feeling among the governments that they’re not looking at the United States for answers anymore.
RV: What do you think this pandemic means for the sports of skiing and cycling, in terms of both global travel by wealthy tourists but also competition?
AH: You get the sense it could be the end of days scenario or at least it’s going to be a long time before it gets back to where it was. Just within cycling, we’ve already had four major cycling teams — there’s 18 major cycling teams — four of them already have done major slashings of the salaries of their riders and one of the teams is on the verge of collapsing just after two weeks. Racing now in Europe has stopped basically until the end of June. The sport of professional cycling can completely collapse, and it’s also impacting soccer, football. Barcelona football club, they have to reduce their salaries of all their top players like [Lionel] Messi and all these guys making 25, 30 million bucks a year and suddenly they don’t have the TV rights or the stadium income to pay these guys, so they’re all having to do budget cuts and reducing these salaries. When you’re looking at this scenario with social distancing, it’s going to be in place until at least there’s a vaccine, right? So maybe the bars will open and maybe a restaurant will open but instead of being back in with 25 tables we’ll have four tables, right? You go to see a concert, or you go to a bike race or you go skiing, how are you going to do skiing if there’s social distancing on a chairlift, right?
RV: Well, Vail and Aspen were trying right up until the bitter end on March 14 – only allowing people who knew each other to ride gondolas or chairlifts, spacing out restaurant tables.
AH: You ever seen a lift line in Spain? Everyone just piles in. It’s like a rugby scrum to get on a chairlift.
RV: I’ve skied in Europe, man. It’s combat in the lift lines.
AH: People stomp all over your skis. Sticking their ski poles in there. I’m used to it now, but when I first went skiing in Spain, I was like, what are these people crazy?
RV: Could this virus really shut down the European ski scene next winter?
AH: This whole pandemic comes on top of the whole global warming issue, which is really a big issue in Spain because the elevation in the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada is not nearly as high as it is in the French and the Swiss Alps. So already we’ve been seeing the last two or three years in Spain, the ski season is being highly disrupted by a lack of snow coverage. They’re saying that with the global warming the snow line is going to be at 2,500 meters. That’s fine if you’re at Courchevel [France], but if you’re in the Pyrenees, the top of the mountain is like 2,800 meters, which I think basically is like the base elevation of Vail. That’s like the peaks of the mountains are the base of Vail. So you knock that down 2,000 vertical feet to the ski area, there’s no snow. There’s been no snow in the Pyrenees the last two or three years. A big storm will come in and you’ll have good snow conditions for a week or two and then it’ll start raining.
RV: Will the average Spaniard, or Europeans as a whole, really even be able to afford outdoor recreation, travel and tickets to high-priced sporting events after this disaster?
AH: This pandemic comes in the top of the last economic crisis. It hit Spain more around 2009 and 2010 — a year or so after it hit the U.S. Spain never recovered. The unemployment went to 25%, and it’s just in the last year or so that the unemployment’s gone around 10%, so Spain has this built-in high unemployment and the fracture lines between the rich and the poor [have grown]. The last economic crisis just wiped out the middle class in Spain and it never really fully recovered, and now they’re just getting slammed with this pandemic and the possibilities of all the tensions and all the gaps and all the inequality that was already kind of built in, it’s just going to get worse. That’s the big fear.