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What Italy’s Lockdown Actually Means During the Coronavirus Outbreak

By Laura Itzkowitz

Mar 11, 2020

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AFAR’s Rome-based reporter shared images of how some of that city’s busiest destinations have emptied out this week as Italy went into lockdown.

Photo by Laura Itzkowitz

AFAR’s Rome-based reporter shared images of how some of that city’s busiest destinations have emptied out this week as Italy went into lockdown.

The Italian government is restricting movement within the country to stop the spread of coronavirus, but travelers currently in Italy are still allowed on trains and airplanes in order to go home.

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This is a developing story. For up-to-date information on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's and World Health Organization's websites.

“We all have to renounce something for the good of Italy,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a televised news conference on Monday evening, announcing that the lockdown already in effect in northern Italy would be extended to the entire country in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus. Outside of China, Italy has the highest number of diagnosed cases and the most fatalities: 12,462 people infected by the virus and 827 deaths, as of Wednesday.

What “lockdown” actually means in Italy 

The new decree restricts travel within Italy, prohibiting any movement around the country unless necessary for urgent work or health reasons. Anyone trying to travel between different towns or regions will be required to fill out a form justifying their need to travel and give it to the authorities at train stations, airports, and police checkpoints on the highways. Falsifying the information on the form can result in fines and up to three months in prison, according to the Local, an English-language website that covers Italian news. 

In addition, all museums, archeological sites, cinemas, theaters, schools, universities, libraries, gyms, and dance clubs throughout the country will remain closed until at least April 3. Restaurants and bars were initially allowed to operate during the day and close at 6 p.m. On Wednesday evening, the government tightened its restrictions and closed all restaurants and bars in the country. All sports events and major public gatherings are forbidden. Only supermarkets, pharmacies, and essential businesses remain open.

A typical café scene in Rome, versus what most streets look like in Rome on March 11.

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The government is urging people to stay home and avoid social contact, which may be the only way to avoid spreading the virus—and Italians are taking it to heart. Since the lockdown took effect yesterday morning, the mood has turned somber in major cities like Rome, Milan, and Venice. In the center of Rome, many shops, restaurants, bars, and gelaterias now have signs taped to the doors declaring “Io resto a casa,” or “#iorestoacasa,” the hashtag being promoted by the Italian ministry of culture, which means “I’m staying home.”

Grocery stores and other commercial enterprises that are open are mandated by the government to ensure that people stay one meter (roughly one yard) away from each other. At the Coop supermarket on Via Nazionale in Rome, an announcement over the loudspeaker reminds customers to stay a meter away from each other. At banks and post offices, only a few people are allowed inside at a time.

The Spanish Steps are one of the busiest attractions in Rome, but on March 11 our reporter captured a quiet scene.

Even some hotels are shutting down completely or operating on a skeleton staff. Imàgo and La Terrazza dell’Eden, the Michelin-starred restaurants at Rome’s famous Hassler and Eden hotels, respectively, are closed in accordance with the ordinance. The Eden and its sister hotel in Milan, the Principe di Savoia, are not taking any new reservations until April 3. Hotel Vilòn, near the Spanish Steps, closed yesterday after all reservations were canceled. The Hotel de Russie and its restaurant, Le Jardin de Russie, are open but operating on a reduced staff, as many staff members are being required to use their vacation days to stay home.

The Uplifting Ways Italians Are Coping With the Coronavirus Lockdown

Public transit and airports remain open, despite cancellations

Conte’s announcement has nevertheless caused some confusion. Though people are being told not to move around, public transit is operating normally and trains like the Frecciarossa are still connecting Italy’s major cities, including Milan and Venice, which have seen some of the highest numbers of infections. Many airlines have discontinued flights to Milan and reduced service to other Italian cities. Delta has suspended all flights to and from Italy until May 31, but Skyteam partners Alitalia and Air France are still operating flights between the United States and Italy. American Airlines is suspending flights to Rome from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Charlotte until the end of April (for PHL) and through early summer (for ORD and CLT) and extending the suspension of all service to Milan through early summer. United is waiving change fees for flights to Bologna, Rome, Genoa, Milan, Trieste, Turin, Venice, and Verona until June 30.

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Americans and other foreign travelers currently in Italy are being allowed on trains and airplanes in order to go home. The Italian government is discouraging tourists from coming at present, and the CDC has placed Italy on a Level 3 Alert, urging travelers to avoid unnecessary travel to the country.

However, some travelers have found it difficult to change their flights in order to leave the country earlier. Carole Shoaf, a 72-year-old semi-retired violin teacher from Asheville, North Carolina, arrived in Italy at the beginning of March for a Tuscany and Denmark vacation she planned  months ago. After the Italian government announced the nationwide lockdown, Shoaf and her family tried to change their original flights to an earlier date. 

“There was nobody in the airport that was helpful at all,” said Shoaf, recalling how they stopped at the airport in Pisa after unsuccessful attempts to reach the airline over the phone or via email.

Unable to reschedule their flights without buying new tickets, they stuck with their original plan of staying in an Airbnb in Corniglia on the coast.

“We’ve just been surrounded by such beauty, it’s hard to be upset. It doesn’t really matter where you are,” said Shoaf, noting that the outbreak has already affected the United States as well. “It’s not such a shabby place to be right here.”

Rome’s Trevi Fountain is often the poster child for overtouristed sites, but on March 11 only a few people ventured out to the site.

Looking toward the future

Though the country is going through one of its most difficult periods in recent history, many Italians have resigned themselves to the government mandate, understanding it may be the only way to slow the spread of the virus, which has already begun to overwhelm the hospitals in the northern regions. Some Italians are even optimistic for the future.

“Italy was on the front line fighting the virus,” said Fulvio De Bonis, cofounder of the luxury tour operator Imago Artis, noting that with a crisis comes the opportunity for rebirth. “I’m proud of what Italy is doing. Soon we’ll show the beauty of our country to the whole world, and it will be even more beautiful because we have understood the value of our country.”

Additional reporting by Michelle Baran. This article originally appeared online on March 11, 2020; it was updated on March 12, 2020, to include current information.

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