World·CBC IN ITALY

Milan at a standstill: Life in a city when coronavirus fears take over

Life in Milan is at a standstill under tight restrictions to deal with Italy's coronavirus outbreak, which looms just outside the city's borders. But residents talk more about their concerns for the economy than their health.

Residents describe this economic hub as 'sleepy' and 'dead' amid moves to control spread of COVID-19

Marco Lo Bello passes the time doing word games in his taxi. He tells CBC News that in his 35 years of driving cabs in Milan, he has never seen business this bad. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Taxi driver Marco Lo Bello sits in his driver's seat, playing word games, while he awaits passengers in Milan. The dispatch radio is silent. 

Lo Bello has been on the job for 35 years and says it's never been this slow. 

He points out his window to the empty Via Manzoni, a busy and fashionable street in the heart of this northern Italian city. Normally bumper to bumper, there are only a handful of cars on the road. 

"The people no work; they are in their home and the school is closed," he said. "Very, very [big] problem, yes."

Milan has ground to a halt under preventative restrictions currently in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. Italy, the worst-affected European country, has reported 821 cases and 21 deaths — the vast majority in the country's north.

It's a notable spike for the global virus that has infected more than 83,000 people worldwide and led to some 2,800 deaths, primarily in China.

A police checkpoint is seen near the town of Somaglia, one of the small towns included in the so-called red zone, or quarantined area, south of Milan. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

When asked if he is losing money, Lo Bello sighs exasperatedly and points his finger to the ground. He isn't worried about catching the virus, characterizing what's going on as paranoia.

"It's a psychological problem," he said.

Milan itself hasn't seen its own cluster of COVID-19 cases yet, and it is not under lockdown. But some of the towns in Italy's so-called red zone — a handful of communities placed under quarantine due to confirmed infections — are just 50 kilometers away. 

WATCH | Take a ride on a quiet tram through Milan's empty streets:

The Milan tram passenger predicts her country will take an economic hit because of global coronavirus fears. 0:54

Officials have, however, shut down spaces where large groups of people gather: churches, museums, schools and sporting venues.

The city's famed La Scala opera house has been shuttered. Its soccer club, Inter Milan, played a major home game on Thursday night with no spectators in the stands. And many restaurants are being ordered to close their doors at 6 p.m. every night.

"It's not normal, this," said restaurant manager Luigi Pellegrino, as he tried to lure customers into taking a seat on his restaurant's patio, with a front-row view of the city's cathedral, Duomo di Milano.

No one is biting. 

Luigi Pellegrino, 31, came to Milan looking for work from Italy's south 10 years ago. He now manages a restaurant on the Piazza del Duomo and fears the slump in tourism will mean he has to lay off staff. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Many of Pellegrino's customers are tourists and fear over the virus is keeping them away from northern Italy, in a country where tourism makes up 13 per cent of the economy.

"It's a very big problem for the economy of Italy," said Pellegrino, pointing out that Milan is the country's financial capital. "You don't have people here, you don't have people in all of Italy."

The hotel industry is also paying the upfront costs of the coronavirus. 

Aside from staff, the lobby of the Four Points Sheraton, in the centre of Milan, is a ghost town.

"We are just working with 20 per cent occupancy, when normally in the midweek, we run at 80 [or] 90 per cent," said Maurizio Naro, the hotel's manager and president of Milan's hotel association.

Hotel manager Maurizio Naro is president of Milan's hotel association. His front desk is quiet, he says, while his reservations switchboard has been busy registering cancelled bookings. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Cancellations and lost bookings are costing the industry more than $30 million a day, Naro estimates. He has been asking staff to take vacation and cutting back on hotel services to make up for the shortfall. 

"Everyone is cancelling now — not only for tomorrow, but for the spring.… This is crazy," he said.

On the streets of Milan, among the sparse number of pedestrians, some people are wearing surgical masks. Most, though, seem to go about their lives as if nothing has changed.

The pigeons far outnumber the tourists in Milan's Piazza del Duomo these days, as coronavirus fears continue to vex northern Italy. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But much has changed for Italian architect Stefano Boeri, who has been busy dealing with coronavirus for weeks — first in Shanghai, and now in his hometown of Milan.

Last month, he had staff at the Shanghai branch of his firm work from home to protect their health. Now he is doing the same thing for the Milan office, though the 63-year-old says he's just following the government's lead.

"It's important that the private sphere and professionals do the same, because otherwise it has to make sense," Boeri told CBC News by phone.

His staff, he says, have had mixed reactions. "For some, it's a necessity, for some, it's an opportunity. And others feel bad that they have to stay home."

Boeri is philosophical about it all; he describes Milan as "sleeping." 

While he says he sees what's happening amid the outbreak as sad, he also views the decision to reduce events and close public spaces is an "act of generosity towards the weaker parts of the community."

Kate Andrews, from Weyburn, Sask., hopes to get her master's degree in a year from Milan's Bocconi University. But with classes on campus currently cancelled, even a few days lost to coronavirus is a concern. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Last Saturday, Canadian student Kate Andrews received an email from her school, Bocconi University, saying it was shutting down as a precaution amid the outbreak. 

The note prompted a lot of confusion among students, said the 28-year-old from Weyburn, Sask., sitting at the park across from the campus she hasn't been able to get into for days.

"My classmates and everyone were going crazy a little bit for awhile. And then a lot of my colleagues actually ended up leaving the city," she said.

WATCH | Canadian Kate Andrews is staying put while her Milan school is shuttered due to COVID-19: 

Kate Andrews, a Canadian student in Milan, is staying put despite the coronavirus outbreak there. She believes it's the safer decision.   1:15

Andrews is choosing to stay put during this unplanned break, saying she doesn't want to risk travelling elsewhere. She is, however, taking extra precautions, washing her hands and being careful about everything she touches. 

"When I see someone on public transit touch something with their bare hand, it seems shocking," she said. 

"I think, the first couple of days, when you'd see empty restaurants and things like that, it was maybe a bit more worrying." 

Earlier in the week, she visited her local grocery store, only to find empty shelves. But she said she feels the panic is now dying down; those empty shelves have now been restocked and many of the stores were busy on Thursday. 

You might think Milan's residents would be looking to brighten the gloom brought on by the country's coronavirus outbreak, but when CBC passed by Prince Chaminda's flower stall mid-afternoon on Thursday, he hadn't sold one bloom that day. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Back on the ultra-quiet Via Manzoni, however, it's another lonely day for street vendor Prince Chaminda. 

He is surrounded by beautiful flowers, bringing a vibrancy and life to the deserted city streets. But the flowers will likely wilt before anyone takes them home.

It's early afternoon, and Chaminda shakes his head, saying the virus has been bad for business. 

"Not one flower sold today."

Milan's famed Galleria shopping mall is shown at midday. Home to Gucci, Prada and other high-end shops, one man behind a counter told CBC News simply: 'It's dead.' (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

About the Author

Renée is a CBC correspondent based in London, U.K. She has spent a decade with the organization in a number of roles, including senior business reporter, weekend news anchor, television and radio reporter, associate producer, program director and others.