Gibraltar reopens after mass vaccinations

Gibraltar, United Kingdom: People without masks greet each other on the sidewalks, friends meet for meals inside restaurants, and sports fans return to live events.

Gibraltar, a tiny British territory on Spain's southern tip, was among the first in the world to vaccinate the majority of its adult population against Covid-19, enabling virus restrictions to be removed and life to return to normal.

After spending Christmas and her 65th birthday alone, Cristine Parody was looking forward to celebrating Easter "as it should be" with her daughters and grandchildren.

It was wonderful to have this touch again, she told AFP on Gibraltar's pedestrianized Main Street, which was bustling with shoppers, the vast majority of whom were not wearing face masks.

Masks have been needed in enclosed public spaces, stores, and public transportation since the end of March.

A curfew between midnight and five a.m. was also removed, improving business at bars and restaurants that only reopened on March 1 after being closed for months.

Popular hangouts like Ocean Village Marina and Irish Town are once again bustling with people out for a meal or a beer.

Gino Jimenez, chairman of the Gibraltar Catering Association and owner of a popular restaurant, said it was especially gratifying to see vulnerable seniors out of their homes and health.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo of Gibraltar declared on Thursday that rules limiting gatherings to no more than 16 participants would be repealed as of April 16.

And, as of Monday, there will be no limit on the number of people who can sit together in a bar or restaurant.

'Oasis' 

Those who receive both doses of the vaccine are given a vaccination card that can be used to attend large gatherings or travel.

Last week, 600 completely vaccinated citizens filled Gibraltar's Victoria Stadium for the territory's World Cup football qualifier against the Netherlands.

On March 27, 500 people gathered at Gibraltar's Europa Sports Complex to watch a top heavyweight boxing match.

Fans in both cases were also required to test negative on the day of the event.

The reopening of Gibraltar comes as the rest of Europe tightens controls and struggles to handle vaccine rollouts.

Rafael Cordon, a 63-year-old chef who commutes daily from the Spanish town of San Roque to work in the British territory, expressed gratitude to Gibraltar for allowing him to get completely vaccinated so quickly.

He mentioned that there was now a significant difference between the two locations.

Being in Spain, where wearing a mask in public is required and night curfews are in effect, is "like being inside a fishbowl where your movements are limited," he said.

"Then you cross over to this site and it is like going from one world to another. This is an oasis right now."

'Huge relief' 

In Gibraltar, which has a population of 34,000, the pandemic took 94 lives, the majority of which occurred in January and February, and infected nearly 4,300 people.

However, due to the vaccine campaign, there have been no virus-related hospitalizations in the territory of only 6.8 square kilometers (2.6 square miles), which is overshadowed by a huge limestone promontory known as "the Rock."

Since the start of "Operation Freedom" in January, Gibraltar has completely immunized 85 percent of its population.

And more than half of the 15,000 or so commuters from Spain who come to work in Gibraltar have had at least one jab.

"It's a huge relief," Health Minister Samantha Sacramento told AFP from her office atop the only hospital with panoramic views of the harbor.

She attributes the fast rollout to the enclave's small size and a steady supply of vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

"During the first weeks, we were vaccinating seven days a week. It was literally a conveyer belt," Sacramento, Gibraltar's only female cabinet minister, explained.

The first in line were front-line hospital employees and elderly care home residents and workers.

Then, at the start of Main Street, a vaccine center was set up above a shopping arcade to immunize the general population.

A steady stream of people could be seen filing in for their vaccine appointments on a recent weekday morning.

After getting their temperatures tested and checking in at the door, they were quickly escorted to one of 14 stations, with the whole process taking about 20 minutes.

"It was all so easy," Alejandro Campoy, 22, said after receiving his first jab.

Every day, he walks across the airport runway that separates Gibraltar from Spain's La Linea de la Concepcion, where he works, to work as a delivery man.

With AFP inputs.

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