Eau Claire native Megan La Barbera and her fiancé César Gutiérrez Fernández are living in Madrid, Spain, where residents are on virtual lockdown. (Contributed photo)
Eau Claire native Megan La Barbera and her fiancé César Gutiérrez Fernández are living in Madrid, Spain, where residents are on virtual lockdown. (Contributed photo)

Now living in Madrid, coronavirus may delay her wedding

When Megan La Barbera moved to Spain six years ago, she fell in love with nearly every aspect of her new surroundings.

The family-first culture. The fast-flowing language. The distinctive architecture. Delectable foods so different from the normal fare of her native Eau Claire. 

She thrived amid the energy of Madrid, the Spanish capital city where La Barbera first worked as a high school English teacher. She enjoyed walking the city’s streets, being immersed in its culture. 

Madrid’s Barrio Malasana neighborhood and other parts of Spain’s capital city were once packed with people, but streets and sidewalks are empty now as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country. (Contributed photo)

Since March 14 those streets have been nearly empty after the Spanish government issued a mandatory stay at home order unless absolutely necessary, an attempt to try to curb the spread of a COVID-19 pandemic that as of Thursday had infected 47,610 people in Spain and had killed 3,434.

The death total topped that of China, where the outbreak occurred. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients infected by the virus, and La Barbera and others, including her fiance, César Gutiérrez Fernández, are stuck at home.

“It’s definitely scary,” La Barbera said during an interview from Madrid, “especially as the number of deaths keeps rising. We’re just staying home, doing everything we can to stay safe.”

La Barbera and others in Spain have grown more concerned as the virus continues to spread. Media accounts detail how hospitals can’t keep up with the demand for treatment despite the fact Spain has a relatively strong healthcare system.

“There are so many people here who need treatment but can’t get it,” La Barbera said, noting retired medical personnel are being recruited to help provide care to patients afflicted with COVID-19 to fill in for staffing gaps. 

Among Madrid’s many notable and now quieter architectural sites is the Atocha Train Station. (Contributed photo)

The COVID-19 outbreak in Spain is so severe that police are stopping people they see walking on the streets, checking where they are headed. Runners have been fined by authorities as that activity is not deemed essential and is thought to be too risky as the virus continues to spread. Grocery stores limit the number of people inside, and those outside waiting to get in must maintain at least a 6-foot distance from each other, a difficult feat in a city of 6.5 million people.

La Barbera admits to struggling being restricted to her tiny apartment. Unlike her hometown, she said, most Madrid residents live in tight quarters and lack yard space to relieve feelings of confinement. “You really do start to feel a little stir crazy,” she said. 

However, La Barbera has left her apartment just once since the lockdown order, a quick out-and-back trip to take out the garbage.

“When you see how bad this has gotten here, you don’t dare go out unless you have to,” she said. 

Like others in Spain and much of the rest of the world, La Barbera and her fiance are working from home. She is a program coordinator at IE Business School, where she currently oversees the school’s online coursework offerings. The school’s in-person courses are cancelled. 

La Barbera credits “a strong support network” that includes her family for helping her maintain a positive attitude amid COVID-19-related challenges. She worries about her brother, John, who lives in New York, another large city hit hard by the virus.

La Barbera’s parents, Chico and Jill, who live in Eau Claire, said they’re worried about their children (two others live in the suburban Twin Cities) living in a location where a serious outbreak has occurred. They and other Wisconsin residents have been confined to home except for essential trips since the “Safer at Home” order by Gov. Tony Evers began Wednesday.  

“We’re definitely concerned,” Jill said, noting about one-third of all COVID-19 cases in Spain are in Madrid. “Our biggest concern is whether they can get care there if they get sick, given that the healthcare system is overwhelmed.”

The La Barberas are using technology to stay in touch and help overcome fears related to the virus. The extended family participates in frequent video chats to stay connected. “We’re doing lots of Facetime,” Jill said. 

Among the myriad changes COVID-19 is causing is the possible delay of the May 30 wedding between La Barbera and Gutiérrez Fernández. Jill and Chico eagerly look forward to that event, but these days their focus is on health. 

“If the wedding winds up being delayed, that is OK,” Chico said. “What really matters now is the health of all of us.”

Amid the life-and-death struggle surrounding COVID-19, La Barbera sees signs of hope. Businesses and citizens are stepping up to help in any ways they can, she said. Each evening at 8 p.m. residents in Madrid and other Spanish communities open their windows and clap in unison in a show of support for healthcare workers. 

“There is fear, but there is also a resilience by the people here,” she said. “People are determined to make it through this.”