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OPINION & ANALYSIS

How Italy has changed in two years of the Covid-19 pandemic

It's been two years since the first Covid-19 lockdowns were declared in Italy and life was irrevocably altered in a range of ways; some obvious, some subtle. The Local's journalists look at what's changed about life in the country since late February 2020.

How Italy has changed in two years of the Covid-19 pandemic
A woman waves the Italian flag in May 2020 at the end of Italy’s first Covid lockdown. Photo: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

It may be hard to believe, but two full years have now passed since Italy began to lock down towns in northern Italy after Europe’s first known outbreaks of coronavirus were confirmed.

By early March 2020, Italy had become the first Western country to declare a nationwide lockdown.

In the intervening two years, Italy has been through a lot – and we think it’s fair to say that the country will never be quite the same again.

Not all of the changes are negative, however.

As we look ahead to the gradual easing of Italy’s remaining restrictions and the return of a more normal life in the coming weeks and months, here’s a look at some of the ways in which Italian culture and society has changed.

Less kissing, more personal space

Is the famous Italian two-kiss greeting gone for good?

While you might still give a close friend or a family member a little peck on the cheek, gone are the days where you’d stand in a circle knocking jowls with people you’d met just moments before.

In fact, the concept of personal space in general is now better understood and more widely practiced in Italy than it ever was in the past – whether it concerns touching between acquaintances, or crowding at the post office.

READ ALSO: Eight things the Covid crisis has taught us about Italy

That’s not to say people are now keeping their distance at all times. But generally speaking, in public spaces most people are still keen to avoid pressing up against one another even in situations where social distancing is no longer really monitored.

This means ticketing systems have in many areas replaced queues – and where they do exist, lines are far more likely to be respected, with healthy gaps maintained between the people forming them.

A sign reminds people to observe distancing measures at a cinema in Rome – The sight of people forming an orderly, distanced queue is no longer unusual in Italy. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

This new awareness of and respect for personal space will be a striking difference for anyone returning to Italy for the first time since the pandemic began.

If you weren’t a fan of touchy-feely Italian behaviour before, no doubt this will come as a relief – while those who enjoyed these affectionate customs may find this a sad development.

Life in Italy is becoming (a bit) more digital.

We wouldn’t go as far as to describe it as a digital revolution, but the pandemic has certainly accelerated Italy’s adoption of online processes.

This is still Italy we’re talking about, and digital is by no means king – but it’s made some noticeable strides in the last two years.

If you need a document from your comune, or town hall, you can now in most cases access it for free online rather than having to block out an entire afternoon to go in person to collect a copy.

People are also much more amenable to the idea of checking – and answering – emails than was the case pre-pandemic, when nothing less than a phone call (ideally followed up by an in-person meeting) would get you any attention.

READ ALSO: How Italy has made it easier to access essential paperwork online

Similarly, more information is also now made available online, whereas before you may have been expected to go to an office in person to get even the most mundane questions answered.

You’re also more likely now to be offered the option of paying by contactless card, even for smaller sums, where cash is traditionally preferred.

This is not only due to people preferring card transactions amid the pandemic for hygiene reasons: the Italian government has introduced a number of measures within the past two years to encourage (and in some cases require) electronic payments, as part of a push to crack down on widespread tax evasion.

Take-out is much more widely available

While a good number of restaurants in Italy’s major towns and cities offered takeaway food and drinks before the pandemic, this is now standard all over the country.

Some places even got creative, offering to deliver pre-packaged, par-cooked box meals you could easily finish at home with the help of online videos.

Realising that the big delivery companies were taking a significant chunk of their profit, a few establishments set up their own delivery systems (if you want to order from somewhere, it’s worth calling them directly first to check whether they offer this).

It’s not just restaurants that have expanded their take-out offering; home delivery in general is more of an option these days.

If you need to order groceries to your house, for example, more supermarkets now let you book a slot online without too much hassle.

This has been a major change for people in smaller towns and more rural parts of the country, where ordering food and drink – particularly coffee – to take away was previously seen as somewhat unusual and undesirable.

Getting your cappuccino to go is now commonplace, even in parts of Italy where this was previously unheard of, and you might even be asked which you prefer when you make your order.

Although whether or not your coffee tastes just as good from a takeout cup is another question – one we know many Italians will have an opinion on.

E-scooter and e-bike craze

Foreign visitors coming to any Italian city after a two-year hiatus are liable to be immediately struck by one thing: Italy has whole-heartedly climbed aboard the monopattino (scooter) revolution wagon.

When the country started to reopen after the first wave of Covid, people looked for ways to travel around their city without being crammed into poorly-ventilated buses and trams, and app-controlled motorised scooters (and bikes) offered themselves up as the answer.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Italy’s electric scooter craze

Electric scooters have become a common sight on the streets of Rome since 2020. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

While a switch to bikes and scooters were already fairly popular in other parts of Europe, Italy had remained stubbornly reliant on cars as the main mode of transportation, including in large cities.

The sudden onset of Italy’s electric scooter fever was fueled in 2020 by the government’s offer (now expired) of up to 500 euros towards the purchase price of a brand new e-bike or scooter for residents of Italian cities.

Street corners quickly became littered with discarded scooters, and pedestrians were suddenly imperiled by riders whizzing by on pavements at 25 km/h – problems which the government has since tried to resolve (with varying degrees of success) by introducing new laws to regulate this brave new mode of transportation.

Returning visitors might also notice that additional bike and scooter lanes have popped up in some cities to accommodate this extra traffic.

Construction and renovation boom

Policies brought in to support Italy’s economic recovery from the pandemic have prompted a (small-scale) construction boom.

It’s not the kind you’ll notice wandering the streets, however, as we’re talking less about erecting skyscrapers than about private homeowners earthquake-proofing their walls and putting solar panels on their roofs, as well as in some cases embarking upon rebuilding and renovation projects.

In May 2020, the government launched its ‘superbonus‘ home improvement and renovations scheme, which promised homeowners a tax deduction of up to 110 percent of the cost of making energy upgrades and reducing seismic risk. 

Unsurprisingly, this prompted a surge in demand that Italy’s building companies have been unable to meet.

READ ALSO: Which of Italy’s building bonuses have been extended into 2022?

Construction firms, engineers and surveyors reported being overwhelmed by the sheer number of enquiries about the offer – many of which come to nothing once homeowners discovered that few people are eligible for the full 110 percent rebate.

Significant savings are still possible, though, and many property owners did go ahead with renovations – often only to face long delays to their projects.

Despite these problems, the policy has had the desired effect of boosting the country’s sluggish economy, with its construction sector recording investments of more than €9 billion under the scheme by November 2021.

The building ‘superbonus’ and ‘ecobonus’ schemes are still available in 2022, along with various other tax incentives for homeowners planning a renovation.

And despite the pandemic’s shake-up of the property market, house prices in Italy actually rose during 2021 overall, while a government scheme (that runs until June 30th, 2022) to help first-time buyers under the age of 36 purchase a house enabled many young Italians to leave their parental home for the first time.

Italy’s population crisis has worsened

Italy has long had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, and the situation has only been worsened by the coronavirus crisis.

In 2020 the Italian population shrank by almost 400,000 — roughly the size of the city of Florence — as deaths peaked, births fell to a new record low, and immigration slowed.

Many blame the ongoing birthrate crisis at least partially on the sluggish economy, the rising cost of living, and lack of financial support available for new parents.

In response, the Italian government has vowed to give more support to women and families and has since begun offering various forms of child support for the first time. In 2022, the government  introduced a universal single allowance.

Have you noticed any other changes to life in Italy which are not mentioned in this article? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Member comments

  1. With the uncertainties surrounding the Madman in Moscow, March 2022 feels in many ways like March 2020.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

A growing number of Italian destinations are bringing in rules aimed at controlling the summer crowds. Such measures often prove controversial - but they should go further, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

Each summer, as tourists flock to Italy, the question of limiting crowds and ensuring sustainable travel comes up. Especially so with Covid.

Placing a threshold on the number of visitors to some of Italy’s top spots has a two-fold goal: that of preserving the artistic and cultural value of the site, and of preventing out-of-control mass tourism from leading to accidents.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which parts of Italy will get the most tourism this summer?

Proposed crowd-control measures usually raise eyebrows, but they shouldn’t. They’re a good way to balance sustainability, and existing rules should be extended to more hotspots.

The Cinque Terre park, known for its stunning hiking trails connecting the area’s cliffhanging fishing villages, has introduced summer tourist limits to preserve its delicate ecosystem. A few parts of the trails, like the Lovers Path connecting Manarola to Riomaggiore, are closed due to soil erosion and landslides.

Groups of no more than 15 hikers are allowed inside the Cinque Terre park in rotation, and there’s a cap of 200 available boat tickets for those preferring to admire the views comfortably from sea while bathing.

Liguria remains a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy this summer.

The Cinque Terre remain a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy, attracting huge crowds. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

Many locations across Italy are reverting to, or are considering, some kind of restricted access to offset high demand with ‘green’, safe travel. 

The Amalfi coast has a summertime limit on driving along the route connecting Positano to Vietri sul Mare to ease congestion, while a few years ago the mayor even banned tourist selfies to stop massive crowds of people invading the whitewashed alleys and sitting on brick walls.

There are currently strict limits on the number of people allowed to visit the Tuscan archipelago national park each summer, mainly the protected islands of Montecristo (uninhabited other than a caretaker), and the two prison islands of Gorgona and Pianosa (boasting a hotel run by inmates on probation). A maximum of 150-200 tourists are admitted annually to each of these isles.

You also need to move fast if you want to spend a weekend in Sardinia, touring its tropical-like baby powder beaches and paradise isles. The number of restrictions in place is on the rise.

On Budelli island, the pearl of the La Maddalena archipelago, other than the pink coral beach, the Cavalieri beach is also now totally off limits, meaning landing on the entire island is forbidden.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

The beaches of Lu Impostu and Brandinchi along San Teodoro’s coast will allow just 1500 and 3300 sunbathers each, while Stintino’s popular La Pelosa beach allows 1500, making tourists pay €3.50 per day and wear a yellow bracelet for identification.

The paradise archipelago of La Maddalena is seeing more tourist restrictions imposed. Photo by Leon Rohrwild on Unsplash

The abandoned former prison island of Santo Stefano, off Rome’s coast, which is part of a protected marine park brimming with barracudas and groupers, is currently undergoing a transformation into an open-air museum with a tiny hostel. Project managers have already pledged daily tourism will be “contained”’ to preserve the unique habitat.

In the mountains too, authorities are eyeing tougher limits. At Lago di Braies in the Dolomites, 14 tourists recently fell into the freezing water trying to take awesome, but silly, selfies of their acrobatic skills despite warning signs.

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

In my view, all of Italy’s tourist hotspots should have some kind of regulation and police patrols, including top city highlights like the Trevi Fountain, Florence’s Duomo, and Venice, which in fact is expected to become Italy’s first city with a tourist limit from January 2023. People will have to book and buy a special pass to see the canals, bridges and piazzas.

If Venice succeeds in doing this, then it will show other cities that they too can control access to at least their biggest hotspots.

In Rome, the Pantheon has done a great job in introducing mandatory (but free) reservations on weekends, putting a stop to visitors just stepping inside to take a peek.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

The Fontana di Trevi, Piazza Navona and especially Piazza di Spagna should be more heavily patrolled, and Rome authorities should really consider a set tourist limit.

But just the idea is controversial, seen as a no-no depriving tourists of the thrill of throwing coins inside Rome’s iconic fountain to make a wish.

The Trevi fountain in Rome attracts a constant stream of tourists. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

There is a constant, sterile discussion within the city council and the national arts department on tougher regulations and limited entrances to Rome’s main sites.

Culture minister Dario Franceschini is pushing for a more sustainable ‘fountain experience’ that limits crowds and prevents heat-struck visitors from diving inside. He recently argued that allowing “1,000 or 100,000 visitors in front of the Trevi fountain” puts both them and the masterpiece at risk.

Ugly red tape, orange nets and rusty fences are occasionally placed around the Trevi Fountain without much of an outcome.

There are architectural barriers to stop people from sitting on the edges and dangling their feet inside the water at Fontana delle Tartarughe and Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, but it’s not enough. 

Setting a daily cap on visitors is the best solution; even better than introducing a ticketing system, because any tourist, once in the Eternal City, would pay to get in, and it would not be fair to discriminate based on money.

After all, if Italian universities can restrict enrollment for medical students, when new doctors are vital during Covid, I see no reason why tourist attractions can’t set limits when their own survival is at stake.

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