World

Italians allowed to visit relatives as country loosens more coronavirus restrictions

Italy begins lifting its two-month nationwide lockdown this morning as the government's "Phase Two" decree allows all citizens to visit some relatives, but Italians had a field day mocking the new guidelines, making it unclear how closely they will be followed.

Anyone wearing a mask and following physical distancing can visit relatives to sixth degree and kin to fourth

A couple wearing protective masks takes a selfie in Florence's Piazzale Michelangelo on May 1 during the coronavirus-related lockdown. Italy's gradual lifting of restrictions begins on May 4. (Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters)

Italy begins lifting its two-month nationwide lockdown this morning as the government's "Phase Two" decree allows all citizens to visit some relatives, but Italians had a field day mocking the new guidelines, making it unclear how closely they will be followed.

The new government decree released last week informed citizens they will be permitted to visit relatives to the sixth degree and kin to the fourth.

In plain language? They can now visit their cousins' children, their spouse's cousins and anyone in between.

Within minutes of the new rules being released, social media mockery poured forth, with suggestions for naming them including spoofs of popular movie titles such as "Call me by your last name"; "The last name of the rose"; and "Children of a lesser uncle."

But it was the ambiguous third category the government listed — affetti stabili, "stable affections," a vague and strangely formal term that could refer to a romantic relationship — that triggered the most ferocious mockery. Fake versions of the self-certifications Italians are still obliged to carry with them appeared online, jokingly listing "stable affection" options such as "someone who dumped me but who I'm still hoping to hook up with" and "someone whose best friend told me might be interested in me."

If there is one common thread that has run through Italy's tragic experience with coronavirus — the worst in Europe with more than 210,000 recorded infections and almost 30,000 recorded deaths — it has been a healthy dose of irony to help people here cope.

Italy facing deep recession

Italians are going to need it moving forward.

The country is in a deep recession, with a 4.7 per cent drop in its GDP in the first quarter of this year, greater than in the financial crisis that put the whole eurozone on the precipice of collapse a decade ago. The second quarter is expected to be worse, with warnings that if COVID-19 infections persist, Italy's economy could shrink by more than 10 per cent.

Rome’s once crowded high-end fashion street Via Condotti is deserted under lockdown. Retail stores in Italy are set to reopen on May 18. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Some five million workers in the construction and manufacturing sectors — essential to Italy's exports economy — will be back on the job Monday. But the equally important tourism sector still faces months of hardship.

"Unlike other sectors, we were never obliged to close," says Stefania Stea, vice-president of Italy's National Hoteliers Association and a Venice hotel owner. "But we're empty. And before we welcome guests again, we have to figure out a whole range of safety protocols."

She says if things go well in the second half of the year, her hotel will bring in 20 per cent of its usual revenue. Like 90 per cent of hotel workers throughout Italy, the government is now paying a minimum wage to her employees as they wait to return to work. But, says Stea, even when tourists eventually do return, they will be almost exclusively Italians — at least for the first months — given restrictions on air travel and quarantine requirements.

'If I have to be sincere, our situation is bad'

Roberta, 53, a beautician who works south of Rome who did not want her last name used, says as painful as the lockdown has been for her family, it was the only responsible decision the government could make given the number of deaths.

Still, she says after two months of bringing in no money, she may see clients privately before the work ban on her category of business, which includes hairdressers and barbers, lifts on June 1.

"We're in deep financial trouble," she says. "My husband works at a pharmacy and doesn't earn much, we have two children and still have to pay our mortgage and bills. If I have to be sincere, our situation is bad."

Restaurants and cafés like this one in Rome will remain closed until June 1 - except for takeout. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Her only criticism of how Italy has handled the crisis is what she calls the inadequate financial help for small businesses and individuals, a limited monthly payment of about $950. It was complicated to access and has taken weeks to arrive.

Even promised loans have provoked frustration among many Italians.

Unlike Canada, where the government has issued interest-free loans to small businesses, it's Italy's banks that will decide which small businesses will get the loans (with a ceiling of about $40,000 fully guaranteed by the government) and what the interest rate will be.

"It's a system that is not going to produce any good results for the Italian economy," says Rome tax consultant Giovanni Barlassina. "Apart from the fact that it won't be easy to get the money from the banks, small businesses don't want loans. They need money that they won't have to pay back. Gifts. And that's because many simply won't be in a position to repay loans."

Rescue package under discussion

Italy itself, with a debt of over 130 per cent of GDP and rising fast, is pushing for gifts from the European Union.

This month, European finance ministers will meet again to try to agree on a comprehensive rescue package that will benefit hard-hit countries like Italy the most. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is pushing for much of the financial help to come in the form of pooled debt and grants, something most observers say is unlikely.

In the meantime, high-density cities are coming up with ways to fast-track the revitalization of urban life. Rome has promised 150 kilometres of new bike lanes, though the few it has now are poorly maintained.

Milan has in recent years been on the vanguard of urban planning and green architecture, rolling out a program to facilitate remote working; transforming streets into bike lanes; widening sidewalks to encourage cycling and walking to work; and setting up tables in public squares and parking spots to help restaurants and cafés stay in business.

Plexiglas separations between workers and the public may be required for food establishments, something renowned architect Stefano Boeri urges caution around.

A customer at a Rome deli selects pasta. Physical distancing and mask wearing will continue to be enforced in all stores as other pandemic restrictions are loosened in Italy this week. (Megan Williams/CBC)

"In some cases, Plexiglas barriers will clearly be needed, above all to protect front-line workers dealing with the public," says Boeri, who notes that creative ways to extend retail space outdoors are the best solution. "But an exaggeration of walls, barriers and obstructions would be a disaster. We need above all to focus on externalizing commerce."

But Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan's deputy mayor, says his biggest concern is increased car traffic. With physical distancing in place, the Milan subway, once the linchpin to its sustainability plan, can only accommodate a third of its capacity.

He worries people will opt for cars, and smog will once again descend on Milan.

"Some people will say the economy is so important that we should abandon ideas of energy efficiency and sustainability. I disagree," says Maran. "Now we have the two ways in front of us. We not only have to get over coronavirus, but we have to do it in the most sustainable way possible."

About the Author

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.

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