Empty Cafés, Idle Waiters and Uncertainty: an Unusual Summer in Europe

Tourist-dependent Italy has cautiously reopened, but visitors have been reduced to a trickle due to fears of the coronavirus pandemic.

The outdoor tables at cafes in Ostuni’s main square, the Piazza della Libertà, are empty due to a lack of tourists this year. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

OSTUNI, Italy (CN) — It’s a gorgeously hot July day but strangely quiet in this whitewashed ancient hilltop town that’s a favorite destination for tourists eager to savor its sweeping views of olive trees and the dazzling Adriatic Sea.

Idle restaurant waiters stand on sidewalks hoping to entice the occasional passersby indoors for a meal. Tourist guides who drive visitors through the narrow streets in three-wheeled vehicles have cut their prices. Rows of café tables in the main square are empty.

“Summer hasn’t even started yet for Ostuni,” said Rinaldo Sorata, a 47-year-old tourist guide smoking a cigarette next to his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape and watching for potential clients. “By this time of the morning in previous years I’d have already done a full day’s work by now.”

Like so many places in Europe, Ostuni’s local economy depends on tourism and its citizens are desperate for a wave of sun-seekers to return this summer to spend money in restaurants, stores, hotels and cafés. In past summers, Ostuni’s population of 30,000 swelled to 100,000 as people flocked in.

“Ostuni lives from tourism,” Sorata said. “We survive the winter months from what we make now.”

Tour guide Rinaldo Sorata waits for customers by his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape in Ostuni. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

But this year is different. Tourists are only beginning to trickle in and many of the visitors are Italians. Slowly, faces from other parts of Europe are showing up but not nearly in the numbers people are used to here. Tourists from even farther away are an exotic species because Europe opened its airports to global travel on July 1. International travelers are largely limited to those coming from 14 countries where the coronavirus outbreak has been brought under control, and Americans are not among those being welcomed to Europe because the pandemic is accelerating in the United States.

“We’re in a crisis here,” said Sante Milone, a 74-year-old retiree, sitting at a café table in the shade of a building with a few friends. He scanned the nearly empty Piazza della Libertà, the main square. “At least 300 people would have been here in the square last year,” he said. “People are hoping it gets better. That’s the mood here.”

Residents said they struggled to make it through Italy’s long lockdown that began March 10 and was lifted May 4. It was a period when fear reigned: A few businesses, including a historic restaurant and a beloved pastry outlet, closed for good and many others worried they wouldn’t survive. The unemployed multiplied and government help was insufficient, leaving many residents relying on charity, food handouts, community goodwill, family support and savings.

With the worst of the pandemic over in Italy, optimism is growing.

“In March, we thought we might not work at all this summer,” said Davide Francioso, the owner of a diving and summer sport shop. “We thought we’d have to close down for good.”

Day by day, the sound of tourists wheeling suitcases down Ostuni’s stone streets is becoming more common again, he said. Business isn’t brisk, but it’s picking up.

Still, this return of visitors may be too feeble for others, like Miriam Duque, a 50-year-old painter with a small gallery in a picturesque passageway where she displays her vibrant depictions of Ostuni and its brilliant blue skies. She has no taste for online sales and relies on attracting walk-by customers with her bursts of color. At the moment, there simply isn’t enough foot traffic to pay the rent and bills, she said.

Miriam Duque stands outside her art gallery in Ostuni, hoping tourism revives enough for her to be able to keep it open. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

“We can’t have any illusions,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to stay open. I’d like to have the gallery forever.”

Ostuni and the surrounding region of Puglia have one big thing going for it: The dangerous coronavirus has mostly disappeared.

“In Puglia, we haven’t had any [new] cases in a long time,” said Gugliemo Cavallo, Ostuni’s mayor.

Southern Italy was spared the worst and Ostuni recorded two deaths linked to Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and about 90 people in the town tested positive, the mayor said. He said most infections occurred among medical workers and their families.

“There is only one case now,” he said. “But people are still afraid. People coming from the outside want to know that everything here is taking place according to the rules.”

To that end, he said Ostuni is inspecting hotels and bed and breakfasts to ensure they are taking containment measures. He said volunteers, local police and drones will be deployed to enforce social distancing rules at nearby beaches and a smartphone app is coming online so people can check to see if a beach is crowded.

With its spectacular whitewashed facades and narrow streets, Ostuni is also a favorite location for weddings. But this year, he said the town is not allowing the typical mass dancing at wedding parties and is requiring social distancing at banquets.

In addition, he said the town is scaling back its summer events. For example, the Feast of Saint John, a midsummer celebration in the town square, was relocated to an outdoor park and attendance was limited to 150 people. Cultural events, such as book authors’ talks, are being kept to 90 people.

A big topic of discussion now is whether towns like Ostuni should be allowed to hold annual religious processions where thousands of people convene on the streets to pay homage to patron saints. These events are accompanied by concerts, markets and fairgrounds. On Aug. 26, Ostuni celebrates Saint Orontius, who, according to Roman Catholic legend, was a disciple of Saint Paul whose powers saved Puglia from a plague outbreak in the 17th century.

“We want to be able to do it. It’s the saint, tradition, centuries and centuries of doing this,” the mayor said. “But I don’t want it to also be an occasion where contagion is kicked off, which frankly, we want to avoid. Crowds are inevitable during the festival.”

He said locals want to be protected from the potential that visitors bring the virus.

“Even though it’s been a long time since we had any infections, psychologically, people want to feel comfortable, safe,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and that nothing happens.”

A few miles from Ostuni, people are returning to the beaches again, though the majority of beachgoers are locals. On beaches, people are being asked to keep a distance from one another but masks are not seen.

At a private beach club called Paragrafo 25, Rino Francioso, the owner, said business was off by 40%. Most of the tables at his outdoor club were empty. Under new safety guidelines, he’s also had to cut the number of spots he can rent on the nearby beach.

“It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll make it,” he said.

Down on the beach, Pietro Leo, a 68-year-old retired medical technician, was enjoying a late afternoon with his wife. He was heartened by how Italians behaved in an orderly fashion during the lockdown and obeyed the government’s rules.

“I’ve noticed a lot of good manners, a lot of participation, a great stance by everyone in Italy,” he says. “If we look at what is happening in South America, in North America, the way Italians behave takes on even more value.”

By comparison, he said President Donald Trump has misled Americans and caused the U.S. to have a huge number of infections.

He said he wasn’t worried about foreigners bringing the virus with them to Italy. “At every airport entry point there is containment: they’re taking temperatures and other measures,” he said.

For now, he, like the rest of Italy, is grateful he can enjoy this summer.

Revelers hit the beach near Ostuni in southern Italy. (Courthouse News photo/Cain Burdeau)

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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