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By Joan Faus and Elena Rodriguez
BARCELONA, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Catalonia announced on Thursday a 15-day ban on entering and exiting its territory, the latest in a series of restrictions taken by Spanish regions to try and contain rampant COVID-19 contagion.
The wealthy northeastern region, home to Barcelona, has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Spain, itself one of Europe's worst hotspots.
Catalan officials said the new measures, which also include closing cinemas and theatres and extending a shutdown of bars and restaurants, were essential to make sure hospitals can cope.
"Our health system cannot deal with this level of stress. It can't take much more," Catalan health chief Alba Verges said.
During weekends, Catalonia residents will not only be banned from leaving the region but also their municipality.
Catalonia announced the new measures, which will be effective as of Friday, as lawmakers in Madrid debated a nationwide state of emergency, which the central government wants to last until May to give regions legal backing for taking such restrictive measures.
"The government is aware that citizens are tired after months of effort and sacrifices, of not being able to do what they used to do before, to hug people, our family and friends," Health Minister Salvador Illa said.
"But it is not the time to relax measures, we have very tough weeks and months ahead of us."
After a lot of political wrangling, the government is expected to gather enough support for parliament to approve the state of emergency at a vote later on Thursday.
But that will not be the end of uncertainty for many Spaniards, as the government is leaving it to each region to decide its own measures to tackle the pandemic, creating a patchwork of restrictions across the country.
With Christmas on the horizon, and no prospects that travel restrictions would be lifted any time soon, some in Madrid worried they would not be able to be with their loved ones.
"Well, for me they (the holidays) are going to be very sad, I have children living in the United States and they cannot come. So I see it as very sad," said pensioner Pilar, a Madrid resident. (Reporting by Joan Faus Writing by Ingrid Melander Editing by Nathan Allen, Kirsten Donovan)
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