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‘A mix of joy and fear’: Italy takes its first steps out of lockdown

Stir-crazy Italians are free to stroll and visit relatives for the first time in nine weeks on Monday as Europe's hardest-hit country eases back the world's longest nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

'A mix of joy and fear': Italy takes its first steps out of lockdown
People returned to parks in Milan on May 4th for the first time in two months. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

More than four million people — an estimated 72 percent of them men — returned to their construction sites and factories as the economically and emotionally shattered country tried to get back to work.

The sounds of banging and drilling echoed across Rome and a group of men drank espresso out of plastic cups in front of the Pantheon, the former Roman temple, as cafes reopened for takeout service.

READ ALSO: Phase Two: What changes in Italy from May 4th?

“We can hear more noise now,” Rome grocery story owner Daniela observed. “It's better than this frightening silence.”

But bars and even ice cream parlours remain shut. The use of public transport will be discouraged and everyone will have to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

“We are feeling a mix of joy and fear,” said 40-year-old Stefano Milano in Rome.

“There will be great happiness in being able to go running again carefree, in my son being allowed to have his little cousin over to blow out his birthday candles, to see our parents,” the father-of-three said.

“But we are also apprehensive because they are old and my father-in-law has cancer so is high risk.”

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Italy became the first Western democracy to shut down virtually everything in the face of an illness that has now officially killed 28,884 — the most in Europe — and some fear thousands more.

The lives of Italians began closing in around them as it became increasingly apparent that the first batch of infections in provinces around Milan were spiralling out of control.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte began by putting a quarter of the population in the northern industrial heartland on lockdown on March 8th.


Disinfecting Piazza Duomo in Milan. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

The sudden measure frightened many — fearful of being locked in together with the gathering threat — into fleeing to less affected regions further south. The danger of the virus spreading with them and incapacitating the south's less developed health care system forced Conte to announce a nationwide lockdown on March 9th.

“Today is our moment of responsibility,” Conte told the nation. “We cannot let our guard down.”

The official death toll was then 724. More waves of restrictions followed as hundreds began dying each day. Almost everything except for pharmacies and grocery stores was shuttered across the Mediterranean country of 60 million on March 12th.

Conte's final roll of the dice involved closing all non-essential factories on March 22nd. Italy's highest single daily toll — 969 — was reported five days later.

LATEST: Italy's coronavirus deaths fall to lowest since lockdown began

The economic toll of all those shutdowns has been historic. Italy's economy — the eurozone's third-largest last year — is expected to shrink more than in any year since the global depression of the 1930s.

Half of the workforce is receiving state support and the same number told a top pollster that they were afraid of becoming unemployed.

And some of those who are out of a job already say they do not entirely trust in Conte's ability to safely navigate the nation out of peril.

“I am worried about the reopening. The authorities seem very undecided about how to proceed,” 37-year-old Davide Napoleoni told AFP.

READ ALSO: Here's how to apply for Italy's 600-euro emergency bonus payment

Conte's popularity has jumped along with that of most of other world leaders grappling with the pandemic thanks to a rally around the flag effect.

But a Demos poll conducted at the end of April found some of Conte's lustre fading. Confidence in his government has slipped by 8 percentage points to a still-strong 63 percent since March.

Italy's staggered reopening is complicated by a highly decentralised system that allows the country's 20 regions to layer on their own rules.

Venice's Veneto and the southern Calabria region have thus been serving food and drink at bars and restaurants with outdoor seating since last week.


A closed beach cafe in Ostia, near Rome. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The Liguria region around Genoa is thinking of allowing small groups of people to go sailing and reopening its beaches. Neighbouring Emilia-Romagna is keeping them closed — even to those who live by the sea.

All this uncertainty appears to be weighing on the nation's psyche. A poll by the Piepoli Institute showed 62 percent of Italians think they will need psychological support with coming to grips with the post-lockdown world.

“The night of the virus continues,” sociologist Ilvo Diamanti wrote in La Repubblica daily.

“And you can hardly see the light on the horizon. If anything, we're getting used to moving in the dark.”

Member comments

  1. Those who criticize or question Conte should walk in his shoes for a few days. He has done an amazing job – measured, thoughtful, thorough. I am grateful he is in charge!

  2. I agree. I still miss Berlinguer, but this pandemic has forced me to see the benefits of government by non- political technocrats. Never mind that the poor man didn’t want the job in the first place. Just imagine what would have happened if there had been snap elections and the fascist had won.

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COVID-19 RULES

Italy lifts mask mandate for private sector workers

Masks will no longer be required in the workplace but Italian companies will have the right to impose restrictions for employees deemed "at risk".

Italy lifts mask mandate for private sector workers

Representatives from the Italian Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Health and all major national unions collectively signed off on Thursday a new “shared protocol” (protocollo condiviso) for the implementation of anti-Covid measures in private workplaces. 

Although the full text of the bill will only be made available to the public sometime next week, portions of the document have already been released to the media, thus disclosing the government’s next steps in the fight against the virus.

The most relevant update concerns face masks, which will no longer be mandatory in private workplaces. 

However, the text specifies, FFP2 face masks remain “an important protective item aimed at safeguarding workers’ health”. As such, employers will have the right to autonomously impose the use of face coverings on categories of workers considered “at risk”.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Notably, face coverings may remain mandatory for those working in “indoor settings shared by multiple employees” or even in “outdoor settings where social distancing may not be practicable”. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions (soggetti fragili) may also be subject to such rules, which, it is worth reminding, are left to the employer’s discretion. 

Alongside mask-related restrictions, employers will also have the right to have their staff undergo temperature checks prior to entering the workplace. In such cases, anyone with a body temperature higher than 37.5C will be denied access to the workplace and will be asked to temporarily self-isolate pending further indications from their own doctor.

In line with previous measures, companies will be required to continue supplying sanitising products free of charge and regulate access to common areas (canteens, smoking areas, etc.) so as to avoid gatherings.

Additionally, employers will be advised to keep incentivising smart working (lavoro agile), as it has proved to be “a valuable tool to curb infection, especially for at-risk individuals”.

Provided that the country’s infection curve registers no significant changes, the updated protocol will remain in place until October 31st, when it will yet again be reviewed by the relevant governmental and social parties. 

With the latest round of measures, Italy has now scrapped all Covid-related health measures, except the requirement to wear face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings, and self-isolation provisions for those testing positive. 

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

Italy’s infection curve has been rising significantly since the beginning of June. From June 1st to June 14th, Covid’s R (spreading rate) rate rose back over 1 for the first time since April 8th. Also, from June 17th to June 23rd, the virus’s incidence rate was 504 cases every 100,000 residents, up by 62 per cent on the previous week.

According to Claudio Mastroianni, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Sapienza University of Rome, “with 25 per cent of daily Covid swabs coming back positive and a R rate over 1, the infection curve will likely rise at least until mid-July”.

However, albeit acknowledging the rising number of positive cases, Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa has so far categorically excluded the possibility of re-introducing lapsed Covid measures, saying that it’ll be a “restriction-free summer”.

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