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NIGHTLIFE

Are there really big crowds gathering outside Italian bars after reopening?

Following reports of large crowds gathering outside bars in Italy, here's how reopening is going around the country.

Are there really big crowds gathering outside Italian bars after reopening?
A barman prepares cocktails to take away by a sign reading "no eating and drinking at the counter". Photo: AFP

Bars, cafes and restaurants were allowed to reopen to the public in Italy from May 18th, with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warning: “It's not the time for parties, nightlife or gatherings. During this phase, more than ever it's fundamental to respect distances and wear masks, where necessary.”

But over the past week, Italian media has been full of reports of crowds gathering at nightlife areas in cities from Palermo to Milan.

Angry officials, fearing a second wave of infection, first pleaded with people to stop. Then they promised to crack down, and said the current travel restrictions may be extended.

But some question just how bad the problem really is.

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As with so many things in Italy, it depends on which part of the country you're in. There's obviously more nightlife in big cties than in small towns, but readers report that some cities are much livelier than others.

My own city, Bari, in southern Italy, is never a particularly quiet place. So I wasn't really surprised to see that, every night since rules were lifted on May 18th, there have been crowds outside many cafes and bars, in central piazzas, and particularly on the lungomare: the walkway along the seafront.

Some bars and cafes, particularly smaller places, are only open for takeaway or outdoor table service, with owners concerned about whether they can actually enforce the rules and not wanting to risk fines of hundreds of euros.

The rules vary by region, but generally tables are supposed to be spaced apart by one metre or more, and masks are required inside bars, cafes and restaurants unless you're sat down.

While the crowds mainly gather in the evening, there's very little social distancing at any time of day and plenty of people spilling out of cafe doorways in the morning, too.. A lot of people wear masks, but not always over their faces.

A customer carries drinks outside a bar in the Ponte Milvio district of in Rome on May 21st. Photo: AFP

But is it the same all over the country? When I asked Twitter on Tuesday what the situation was like around Italy, here's what people said:

“In Bergamo on Saturday there was a big security presence stopping people from loitering in big crowds. The centre of town was very busy at the weekend, but people seem to be trying their best to stick to the rules.”

“Verona was fairly packed with folk out for an aperitivo. Little respect for social distancing rules/use of masks.”

“Catania so far is keeping a semi-orderly state. Most people have masks, not that they wear them properly. About 50 percent of the bars/restaurants have reopened and doing the minimum with protective measures. It's people in the streets that are too close, careless.”

“Very orderly in my Rome suburb but in the evenings there are crowds of young people practising social closeness in the piazza.”

Rome residents also said the situation is completely different from one part of the city to another, with some piazzas standing empty while others were crowded, and some bars enforcing the rules far more strictly than others.

Central Milan. Photo: AFP

So why are these crowds gathering? Are people out celebrating the end of lockdown? Not really. My impression is that they're just doing what they'd normally be doing on a warm evening in late May, if a bit more enthusiastically after two months shut indoors.

This week, much attention in the Italian press has been focused on the “movida”, a slightly retro word, borrowed from Spanish, sometimes used to describe Italy's summer nightlife.

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Rather than meeting up with friends at a bar or beer garden as we do in some countries, in Italy it's far more common to just meet at the piazza or seafront, or to go for a walk around town, perhaps getting a drink or an ice cream on the way, enjoying the cooler air after a hot day and stopping to chat with people you meet.

People aren't suddenly gathering in groups because lockdown has ended: this is just what summer evenings look like in Italian cities at this time of year – albeit usually without the masks.

And it doesn't seem as though people believe the danger has passed, either.

“We can't stay inside any longer. We need to get out and restart our social lives,” said 17-year-old Francesca, who spend Saturday night with a group of friends on Bari's seafront. “We're wearing masks, we're not drinking or causing problems. I think most people are following the rules.”

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

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

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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