Santiago (AFP) - With near-deserted streets and police checks, the seven million people of Chile's capital, Santiago, began a strict quarantine Saturday after a sharp resurgence of coronavirus cases.
Normal activity in the capital was down 85 percent, the government said, as people were only allowed to leave their homes for essential food and medicine and a short period of exercise.
"Blocks and blocks of the city are completely empty and we can take it that this is a good start," Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters at Santiago airport after a fly-over of the city.
Long lines of cars caused gridlock Friday evening as people streamed out of capital for the coast, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, hours before the lockdown came into force at 10:00 pm (0200 GMT).
The lockdown order, announced by Manalich on Wednesday and due to last at least a week, dealt a blow to earlier hopes the South American country could reopen its economy following evidence it had flattened the curve.
New infections had reduced to between 350 and 500 a day in late May, leading to the government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera relaxing some restrictions, and allowing businesses and stores to reopen.
However, new cases have doubled in the past 10 days.
Having remained below 1,000 a day last month, the daily average has shot up to well over 2,000 new infections a day.
The South American country had 41,428 infections by Saturday, with 421 deaths -- 27 of those fatalities coming in the previous 24 hours.
Santiago has reported 80 percent of the country's cases, amid concern that the country's emergency services were already operating near their limit.
"We have kept the case fatality rate close to 1 percent, but when we see a greater number of people infected, obviously the number of deaths also increase," said Arturo Zuniga, a health ministry official with responsibility for care networks.
Some patients have been transferred to a hospital in the southern city of Concepcion to free up intensive-care beds in the capital ahead of expected increased demand in the coming weeks, authorities said.
- 'Few on the streets' -
Santiago's main avenues were almost entirely deserted on Saturday.
Supermarkets and small neighborhood grocery stores remain open, though the numbers of people entering was being strictly limited.
Some people walked their dogs in the 30 minutes available for them to do so.
Police limited access to the city's main La Vega market which normally draws large crowds on Saturdays.
Police and military also stepped up checks on drivers to examine travel permits.
"From my point of view, people have acted responsibly, but in the last week, we have been seeing the number of infections explode and that's why the authorities had to take this measure," said Valentin Vera, a civil engineer who has begun using a bicycle to avoid public transport during the pandemic.
The government responded quickly to the first cases on March 3, introducing a nationwide curfew and selective quarantines on areas with high incidences of the virus.
Schools, universities and businesses were closed as part of social distancing measures and transport restricted.