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HEALTH

‘It’s not the time for nightlife’: Italy’s PM warns partying could fuel new coronavirus wave

As crowds gather outside bars on summer evenings, Italian authorities are pleading with people to avoid gatherings and wear masks.

From Palermo to Turin, images of partygoers across Italy gathering in piazzas, along seafronts and canalsides, and outside bars have sparked anger and concern among regional leaders and mayors.

Authorities worry that crowds of mostly young people celebrating their freedom from quarantine may bring about another rise in infections of a disease that has already killed more than 32,000 in Italy.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who took a tough line at the start of the crisis by putting the entire country under lockdown in early March, sounded like a nagging parent on Thursday as he spoke to parliament.

“It's not the time for parties, nightlife or gatherings,” Conte said. “During this phase, more than ever it's fundamental to respect distances and wear masks, where necessary.”

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In the northern city of Padua, photos of dozens of young people packed together without masks outside a bar raised the ire of regional president Luca Zaia.

“In 10 days, I'll see the infection rates. If they rise, we'll close bars, restaurants, beaches and we'll lock ourselves back up again,” he warned.

“No one wants to ban spritzes but I'm asking that we avoid gatherings and we wear masks until June 2.”

Zaia said his Veneto region planned to make a short film showing “what it means to go for a spritz without a mask”.

Similar scenes with hundreds of young people have been seen in Palermo in Sicily, in Turin in the northwest and Bari in the south, among other cities.

Milan's popular canalside area on May 6th. Photo: AFP

In Rome, a bar owner in the popular nightlife zone of Trastevere, Alessandro Pulcinelli, told AFP that young people out at night have been lingering until about 1:00 am.

“They think they've done everything they needed to and now it's the moment of freedom,” said Pulcinelli. “They've got masks, but they don't wear them. It's hard to drink and talk with them.”

On the eve of the reopening of restaurants and bars, the mayor of Bergamo, an epicentre of the virus in the northern region of Lombardy, said he had already seen “so many people who are not careful enough” during a walk through the city.

“Are hundreds of deaths in our city not enough? Do we want to find ourselves in trouble once again in a month?” Mayor Giorgio Gori wrote Sunday on his Facebook page.

In Lombardy, masks in public are mandatory.

In order to encourage more outside seating – because the virus can spread more readily in enclosed spaces – Italy has eliminated a tax paid by cafes and restaurants for tables on the street.

“In exchange, we ask them for a little additional effort to avoid gatherings and possible contagions,” Bergamo's Gori said.

Crowded street parties represent “a real withdrawal from reality”, psychoanalyst Caterina Tabasso told the Repubblica newspaper.

“Young people often defy death and these crowded aperitifs can be an example of a sense of omnipotence.”

Italy's police, who until now have been charged with keeping people inside their homes, are now expected to perform more frequent patrols of popular nightlife areas.

Fines can range from 400 to 3,000 euros ($438 to $3,288).

Padua Police Commissioner Isabella Fusiello told Italy's La Stampa newspaper on Thursday that it was not just for the police to keep things under control.

“Those who run public establishments also have responsibilities,” Fusiello said, saying that bar owners risked having their licences revoked.

Rome bar owner Pulcinelli said his biggest fear was fines, but that he didn't have any way to make people respect social distancing.

“Tonight, all the bars in Trastevere will be open,” Pulcinelli said, adding it would be at its peak. “I think the police presence will be impressive.”

Antonio Decaro, the mayor of Bari, suggested that cafe and bar owners deliver a mask with every cocktail.

“It's unrealistic to think that law enforcement can control every citizen,” Decaro said.

Find all The Local's coverage of the coronavirus crisis in Italy here

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COVID-19 RULES

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

The new Italian government has announced the end of some remaining Covid health measures. Here's a look at what will - and won't - change.

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Few Covid-related restrictions remain in Italy today, six months after the nationwide ‘state of emergency’ ended.

The previous government had kept only a handful of precautionary measures in place – which the new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, must now decide whether or not to keep.

The cabinet is holding a meeting on Monday and will issue a decree this week detailing any changes to the health measures.

Many expect the government to scrap all measures entirely by the end of the year, after Meloni and her party criticised the way Mario Draghi’s administration handled the pandemic throughout its tenure. 

Meloni clearly stated in her first address to parliament last Tuesday that “we will not replicate the model of the previous government” when it comes to managing Covid.

READ ALSO: Five key points from Meloni’s first speech as new Italian PM

While she acknowledged that Italy could be hit by another Covid wave, or another pandemic, she did not say how her government would deal with it.

Meanwhile, new health minister Orazio Schillaci issued a statement on Friday confirming the end of several existing measures, saying he “considers it appropriate to initiate a progressive return to normality in activities and behaviour”.

Workplace ban for unvaccinated medical staff

Schillaci confirmed that the ministry will allow doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work after being suspended because they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

They will be allowed to return “in light of the worrying shortage of medical and health personnel” and “considering the trend of Covid infections”, the statement said.

Fines issued to healthcare staff aged over 50 who refused vaccination would also be cancelled, it added.

There were some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Daily Covid data reports

Schillaci also confirmed in the statement that the health ministry will no longer release daily updates on Covid-19 contagion rates, hospital cases and deaths, saying this would be replaced by a weekly update.

It said it would however make the data available at any time to relevant authorities.

Mask requirement in hospitals to stay?

The requirement to wear face masks in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare facilities expires on Monday, October 31st.

At a meeting on the same day the government is expected to decide whether to extend the measure.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Italy’s new government?

While the government had looked at scrapping the requirement, it reportedly changed stance at the last minute on Monday after facing heavy criticism from health experts.

Media reports published while the meeting was in progress on Monday said government sources had indicated the measure would in fact be extended.

Confirmation is expected to come later on Monday.

Italy’s face mask rules in care homes and healthcare facilities are up for renewal. Photo by Thierry ZOCCOLAN / AFP

‘Green pass’ health certificate

There is no indication that the new government plans to bring back any requirements to show a ‘green pass’: the digital certificate proving vaccination against or recent recovery from Covid, or a negative test result.

The pass is currently only required for entry to healthcare facilities and care homes, and this is expected to remain the case.

‘Dismantling the measures’

Some of the confirmed changes were strongly criticised by Italy’s most prominent healthcare experts.

Head of the Gimbe association for evidence-based medicine, Nino Cartabellotta, said the focus on cancelling fines for unvaccinated healthcare workers was “irrelevant from a health point of view .. but unscientific and highly diseducative”.

He told news agency Ansa it was “absolutely legitimate” for a new government to discontinue the previous administration’s measures, but that this “must also be used to improve everything that the previous government was unable to do”.

The government should prioritise “more analytical collection of data on hospitalised patients, investments in ventilation systems for enclosed rooms … accelerating coverage with vaccine boosters,” he said.

However, the plan at the moment appeared to be “a mere dismantling of the measures in place,” he said, “in the illusory attempt to consign the pandemic to oblivion, ignoring the recommendations of the international public health authorities”.

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