Health Minister | Marta Pérez

Authorities on Friday urged some four million people in Catalonia, including its capital Barcelona, to stay home, appealing to people to act responsibly as the region battles a growing number of new coronavirus clusters.

The stay-home call stopped short of imposing a mandatory lockdown, but was the strongest measure a region has taken to returning people to home confinement since Spain emerged from a nationwide lockdown last month.

Gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned. Residents of Barcelona, its suburbs and the areas of Segria and Noguera, further away from the city, were urged to shop online and leave their home only to go to work, to visit a doctor or carry other essential activities.

"We recommend that people don't move around if it's not absolutely necessary," Catalonia's health chief Alba Verges told a news conference, saying most infections came from gatherings of family or friends.

"It's very important to respect these measures now, it's the best way to avoid a lockdown," Verges said. "No one wants a full home confinement."

Cultural and sports events will also be limited but museums will remain open in Barcelona, one of Europe's most visited cities.

Bars and restaurants can keep working, but with a limit of half their usual capacity indoors, and with a 2-metre (6.5- foot) distance between tables outdoors.

Catalonia and neighouring Aragon have led the increase in cases as Spain sees infections rise again. The country reported the steepest daily jump in infections in over two months on Thursday, with 580 new cases registered.

Spain, one of Europe's hardest-hit countries with more than 28,000 deaths in the COVID-19 pandemic, emerged from a strict national lockdown on June 21. But since then more than 170 infection clusters have sprung up, prompting regional authorities to impose a patchwork of local restrictions.

Masks are compulsory everywhere in public places in much of the country, including Catalonia. They are widespread but not mandatory if people can keep a safe distance in Madrid, which has not introduced any new restrictions yet.