Italians Enjoy Some Relief as Europe’s Longest Lockdown Eases

Millions of Italians went back to work Monday, but schools, churches and some businesses are still closed.  

Commuters crowd Cadorna train station in Milan, Italy, on Monday. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Children are back outside and running across Italy’s picturesque squares, mask-wearing pizza makers are firing up their wood ovens again and baristas are back to brewing espressos.

Monday was a momentous day for Italy as it eased restrictions on a nationwide lockdown imposed in early March, the longest in Europe. The lifting of restrictions was both a relief and a cause for new anxiety over the possibility the deadly novel coronavirus may flourish anew as people go back to work and are allowed to visit family members and partners.

Italy was the first European nation to see a major outbreak of the coronavirus in late February. As the number of infections and deaths grew dramatically, Italy took the unprecedented step to impose a lockdown on its 60 million inhabitants to contain the virus.

“It is so good to get back to an almost normal life,” a bar owner in Bologna told Sky television. “Many people haven’t had a coffee since March 11, so people are emotional.”

While cafes and restaurants are allowed to reopen, they can only offer take-out services. Cappuccinos and espressos, therefore, come in plastic cups and must be savored on the street and at home rather than at the classic cafe counter.

“It’s good to be back with clients, co-workers,” the Bologna cafe owner said, his face hidden behind a mask. “I don’t want to continue like this.”

An estimated 4.4 million people went back to work on Monday as construction sites, factories and many businesses were allowed to reopen. Still, some services, such as hairdressers, gyms and church masses, remain closed. Schools are closed too and won’t reopen until the fall.

A coffee shop opens for takeout in Rome on Monday. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP)

It was a day when towns and cities saw the cautious return of people. Joggers were seen again in parks, cyclists on the roads and roadways saw heavier traffic. Outdoor food markets began selling fruit and vegetables again. Italy’s professional soccer clubs also resumed team practices.

Besides relief, many Italians are worried the virus will begin a second wave of infections and deaths as people go back to work and are allowed to visit family members and partners.

People are being told to keep up social distancing measures, not gather in large groups, not visit friends and everyone is required to cover their faces on public transportation and in many shops. Italians are being told they bear responsibility for keeping the virus in check.

“As never before, the future of the country is in our hands,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.

“It will take working together, civility and respect for the rules,” Conte said. “The more scrupulous we are in obeying the safety measure the sooner we’ll be able to gain new freedoms.”

“Let’s obey the rules, let’s not think the crisis is behind us,” said Luca Zaia, the president of the Veneto region. “We’re playing with the future.”

Zaia said 1.2 million people in Veneto – a large industrial region that includes the cities of Venice, Padua and Verona – are going back to work. He warned a stringent lockdown will have to be imposed again if the number of new infections rises fast.

Another concern is the chance of outbreaks in southern Italy. On Monday, thousands of southern Italians who live and work in the richer north were allowed to return home to large southern cities like Naples, Palermo and Bari. Southern Italy’s health care system is much weaker than the north’s and outbreaks could overwhelm hospitals there. So far, southern Italy has largely been spared.

Travelers heading home on trains and buses are getting their temperatures taken, are required to wear face masks and are expected to self-quarantine once they get home.

Official data shows that more than 210,700 people in Italy have been infected with the virus and about 29,000 people have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

But these numbers likely are only partial because many infected people aren’t tested and people who died in homes and nursing facilities may not have been included because they were not tested for the virus.

On Monday, the national statistics agency, Istat, reported that the number of deaths in March nearly doubled from a year ago and was about 40% higher than average.

People sunbathe and stroll inside Rome’s Villa Pamphili park on Monday. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The agency said more than 90,000 people died between February 20 and Mar 31, a 38.7% increase from the average of about 65,000 deaths during the same period from 2015 to 2019.

It said 90% of the increase was related to spikes in deaths in towns where coronavirus infection rates were high. Istat found a 568% increase in deaths in Bergamo, a province in Lombardy at the epicenter of the outbreak.

These findings shed more light on the staggering toll Covid-19 has had on Italy, the country with the most deaths in Europe from the pandemic.

Italy is not just dealing with a wave of death and fear of the virus. Like much of Europe, its economy is in recession and the pandemic is hurting a country that relies so heavily on tourism.

“Tourism is the big victim in this economic crisis,” said Dario Nardella, the mayor of Florence, on Sky television. He said Florence’s tourism sector has taken a $1 billion hit.

It remains far from certain that tourists will be flocking to Italy anytime soon and people are bracing for borders and travel to be restricted throughout the spring and summer months.

Maria Cacialli, the owner of a pizzeria in Naples, said she was hopeful.

“We are hoping for a great recovery and that Naples can have an explosion of joy,” she told RAI, an Italian news broadcaster.

But it will be a hard and painful recovery for Italy, which was already struggling under heavy public debts and slow growth before the pandemic. Italy is spending billions of dollars to help unemployed workers and struggling businesses and it is expected to need much more.

“The economic crisis is the second big disaster that we will have to deal with,” Luciano Fontana, the editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, told Sky.

Besides the economic troubles ahead, political turmoil is rumbling too as Italy’s governing center-left coalition strains under infighting and comes under attack from parties on the right.

“I think a political crisis during an emergency of this magnitude would be very dangerous,” Fontana said. But he said it was possible the fragile government could be in trouble.

“We’re in May, and we still can’t see the light” out of this crisis, he said.

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

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