Italy Virus Cases Pass 1 Million With Second Lockdowns Under Way
(Bloomberg) -- Italy led the way in fighting the early wave of Europe’s pandemic back in March, imposing a strict three-month lockdown that halted the contagion but almost crippled its economy.
Now, with cases topping 1 million, a second round of shutdowns has made Italians anxious about the economic impact and weary of the return to restrictions on daily life. The government’s wavering response hasn’t helped.
“There clearly wasn’t a strategy for closing down even though everyone knew we’d have to do it again,” said Alberto Visentini, 61, owner of a sporting goods store near Milan’s Central Station. “For sure a lot of businesses won’t be able to survive this time.”
Only nine months have passed since a 38-year-old from a town near Milan became Italy’s first confirmed Covid-19 patient. Though initially slow off the mark, Italy quickly morphed into a feel-good success story of tough measures combined with civic spirit. The international media gushed over locked-down Italians singing from their balconies, spontaneously serenading healthcare workers and flying flags with the slogan “Everything Will Be OK.”
Now, one-third of the economy is back under partial lockdown, and no one is singing. Northerners are grumbling after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte introduced targeted shutdowns that closed a swath of their region. Tourism businesses from Rome to Florence worry that visitors won’t return. And everyone hates the 10 p.m. nationwide curfew.
Six more regions saw curbs tightened on Monday, and officials are already weighing a second nationwide lockdown.
Italy on Wednesday reported 32,961 new cases, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 1,028,424. The country reported 623 virus-linked deaths, the most since April 6. As of November 10, Covid-19 patients occupied 37% of intensive therapy units and 52% of all hospital beds, close to the peak last spring. A total of 42,953 people have died from the virus. Patients in intensive care units rose by 110 to 3,081, below the early April peak of more than 4,000.
Health experts say it will take at least two weeks to evaluate the efficacy of current measures but the economic impact is already clear. In Milan, the usually vibrant economic engine of the country, retailers, shopping malls, theaters and cinemas are closed. Usually buzzing neighborhoods like the upscale Monte Napoleone fashion district are deserted.
Some 100,000 retail businesses in the Lombardy region surrounding the city have closed their doors, including 50,000 bars and restaurants. The effects of the shutdown are being felt further south, too, even if restrictions are milder.
Plummeting tourism and national travel restrictions prompted Rome-based Italo, one of Italy’s two high-speed rail operators, to cancel most of its service and furlough the majority of its 1,500 workers.
“Since October we’ve been in a sort of lockdown situation,” said Executive Vice President Flavio Cattaneo, adding that he expects sales to fall about 70% this year.
With few tourists in the capital, 1,000 of Rome’s 1,200 hotels are shut, according to industry lobby Federalberghi. The 4-Star Cosmopolita near the Forum made a “desperate attempt” to reopen after the first lockdown, but closed after a month, owner Walter Pecoraro said. “Who knows when, and if, we’ll be able to open again.”
The contagion’s rapid spread means that the government’s worst-case scenario -- output shrinking 10.5% this year and expanding only 1.8% in 2021 -- is probably too optimistic. Public debt could easily surpass 160% of GDP.
The government has pushed back against the idea of a trade-off between slowing the virus and protecting the economy.
“The best economic policy is to fight the virus,” Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri said last weekend.
Still, judging by the decision to keep many activities running, Conte appears wary of the destructive potential of another full shutdown. Businesses ranging from car dealerships to barber shops remain open, even in the country’s “red zones,” where controls are strictest.
The premier may also be concerned about social tensions. Demonstrators clashed with police in cities around the country last month after new restrictions were unveiled.
Though most of the attention was on angry protests in Naples, normally staid Milan saw its own brief wave of unrest, as demonstrators overturned a tram -- just up the street from a hospital packed with patients seeking treatment for the virus.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.