Coronavirus forces cancellation of Pamplona bull-running festival for the first time in decades

Carmelo Buttini Echarte said he “couldn’t hold back my tears” after he found out it had been canceled.
Image:
People wear masks June 20 in Pamplona, Spain, as they march the route of the running of the bulls, which has been canceled this year because the coronavirus pandemic.Alvaro Barrientos / AP file

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By Cristina Giner

BARCELONA — Pounding hooves and squeals of excitement as bulls charge toward the fleeing crowd of thousands of people will not be heard on the streets of Pamplona on Monday for the first time since Spain's civil war.

Made famous by Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises," the historic San Fermin bull-running festival normally draws hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to drink, dance and race through the streets of the Spanish city.

Although it has survived previous pandemics, this year's event was canceled in April as the country's coronavirus outbreak spiraled out of control.

"It's so strange and sad," said Carmelo Buttini Echarte, 52, one of the best-known bull runners, who said he has not missed a bull run in 40 years since his first at age 12.

He said he "couldn't hold back my tears" after he found out it had been canceled.

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Echarte is part of the third generation of his family to run a library on the route of the runs, or encierros. As in every other year, he set up a clock at the front of the library counting down the days, hours and minutes until the chupinazo, a celebratory rocket, is set off from City Hall at midday on July 6 marking the start of the festival, which runs until July 14.

"Usually I watch the clock every day and I think, 'One day less to go,'" he said. "Now I look at it and feel desolated."

He said he has refused a request from authorities to take the clock down.

The event originated in the 14th century, when farmers transported bulls from the fields to the Old Town square to sell at market, said Echarte, who has studied the history of the festival. Farmers would run in front of their animals to encourage them, he said.

Revelers sprint in front of bulls and steers during the first running of the bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain, in July 2019.Susana Vera / Reuters file

Racing initially was banned, but Pamplonans carried on running. In 1867, authorities issued the edicts about the runs that remain in place today.

Normally, the encierros take place every day at 8 a.m. from July 7 to July 14. Six bulls start from a corral on the edge of Old Town and charge through excited crowds, around 20,000 strong, many wearing the traditional all-white outfit with a red scarf, to the arena. There, matadors fight and kill the animals in the afternoon.

Although no live runs will happen this year, the state broadcaster TVE will play reruns from previous years every morning.

A limited number of people will be allowed into Old Town's narrow streets, although police will enforce strict capacity limits and signs will alert attendees when the main squares fill up.

Bars and restaurants, some of which rely on the festival for a fifth of their annual revenue, will be forced to adhere to strict distancing guidelines and have been banned from setting up extra tables on the streets.

A Mass for Saint Fermin — said to be the son of a Roman senator who converted to Christianity in the third century, before becoming the first bishop of Pamplona — will take place Tuesday.

Urging people to be sensible, Pamplona's mayor said last week that it would "be strange for everyone" but that he hoped he could be "proud of our behavior."

Laura Duarte, president of Partido Animalista Contra el Maltrato Animal, a political party that fights against the mistreatment of animals, said the cancellation was "good news, because animals will not be suffering."

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However, she said the festival was about much more than the bull runs.

"We'd like to enjoy the festival every year without people or animals shedding blood," she said.

In a country where bullfighting remains popular, she remains in the minority.

Many, like Sergio Folch, 21, are eager for the runs to return, even though he spent 20 days in a coma after a bull ran over his lungs in October 2018.

"I suffered a thoracic compression fracture," said Folch, who trains four days a week to take part in bull runs across Spain.

He said he understood why this year's event had been canceled.

"I know my life is at risk, but I'd rather die doing something I love than to die working or sleeping," said Folch, who turned 20 in the hospital. "If life frightens you, you end up doing nothing."