“Each city is a ghost city”: Life in Italy under full coronavirus lockdown
Work and social life is largely only at home now, but there’s real unity in the country’s shared sacrifice.
The days fill with work and WhatsApp chats. A little exercise. Streaming shows, reading books. Friends talk more on video, a thing they rarely used to do since everyone would see each other at the bar.
Schools and most offices are closed, but there are still lessons to plan, homework to do, and deadlines to meet. Those who must go to work wear masks at their desks and use gloves to handle items, even the coffee machine. Everything is sanitized over and over and over again.
Meals break up the day — good ones, with fresh food and wine. That part feels mostly normal, except that all the packages and bags brought inside are now wiped down and disinfected first.
Trips to the grocery store, or maybe to walk the dog, are the rare escapes. A walk or solo run is permitted, though it can sometimes depend on the cop. Police across the country are checking to see that people who are out have the required paperwork, are going where they say they are.
All of this makes the outside world mostly quiet, except for the ambulance sirens.
“It’s a ghost city,” Ylenia Stanzione, a 38-year-old flight attendant from Gallarate, near the Milan Malpensa Airport, told me. “Each city is a ghost city.”
An abandoned street in Treviso, Italy.
Mimmo Lamacchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Piazza di Spagna, a popular tourist destination in Rome, stands mostly empty.
Christian Minelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The nearly deserted Piazza della Repubblica in Turin.
Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images
This is Italy, now in its second week of nationwide emergency measures that severely restrict domestic travel and ban public gatherings, a blanket decree intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic there. Italy is the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe, with more than 31,000 Covid-19 cases as of March 18, and more than 2,500 deaths.
Spain and France have adopted similar shutdowns. It’s happening in the United States, too, with cities like San Francisco ordering residents to stay at home. Italy was the first Western democracy to adopt such expansive rules, a foreshadowing of what was to come, in some form, everywhere else.
“This new way of living your life,” Marco Castronovo, a 35-year-old engineer who lives in Milan, said. “Of course it’s a lot different than before. But the perception for the future is that [we] have a government that understood, before the other ones in Europe, that this is a more serious thing than the normal flu.”
How long this way of life will last is still eerily uncertain. Italy’s measures are in place until at least April 3, but not everyone I spoke to expects it to be over then. Still, it helps, for now, to have an end date to believe in.
For now, Italians are following the rules, and the rules have radically transformed life. Stores limit the number of people who can shop inside at once, so people wait in line, putting one meter’s distance between each other. An entire nation has abandoned expressive greetings: no hugging or kissing or handshakes. Though there is not always someone to greet right now.
“Io resto a casa” is the new motto: I’m staying home.
What a shutdown feels like, from Bergamo to Palermo
Antonino Di Franco, a 34-year-old cardiologist near Palermo, Sicily, told me his colleague described Italy as going through three phases. “Phase #1: Don’t worry; Phase #2: Worry; Phase #3: Stay home,” Di Franco wrote in an email. “Italy has already paid a very high price for going through all 3 phases.”
The “don’t worry” phase perhaps ended sooner in northern Italy, where the outbreak first took hold. The province of Lombardy became overwhelmed. Though it is one of Italy’s richest regions, with a strong health care system, the situation still became catastrophic as more and more people sought treatment.
Undertakers unload a coffin from a hearse on March 16, 2020, at the Monumental cemetery of Bergamo, Lombardy, in northern Italy. The region has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy.
Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images
Andrea is a 28-year-old banker in Bergamo, a city in the Lombardy region that is at the core of the coronavirus outbreak in the region and all of Italy. “You see these people with the white protective dress and all the masks and the gloves and everything; it seems like it’s a movie,” he said.
“You really think, ‘Wow, this is happening for real,’” he added. “It can happen to my neighbor — it doesn’t happen to my neighbor, fortunately. But it can happen to anybody. Because you hear the ambulances all day.”
In southern Italy, the outbreak is not as intense. But doctors like Di Franco worry the coronavirus will arrive with force there, too, because thousands of people tried to flee to the south when the restrictions on the north were introduced, either to return home or to skirt the initial lockdown. Putting all of Italy under the same rules equalized everything and brought the country together for a common purpose, though it couldn’t undo the reality that people in the north had already boarded trains to new destinations.
“Everyone is in the same situation right now,” Maria Morando, a 23-year-old graduate student from Cremona, in Lombardy, told me. “It hasn’t been too weird because everyone is trying to normalize the situation and to adjust.”
Adjusting means learning to live almost entirely indoors for most. “It is strange; it’s also a bit sad, because it’s spring, you know,” Morando said. “There’s a friend’s birthday and you can’t celebrate. You try in other ways, with Skype talks. You call your friends more often, catch up with people who’ve fallen away.”
Even the normal routines have reshaped themselves. Di Franco, in Palermo, still goes to work and sees patients, but all the staff in his office wears protective gear. He would normally greet his patients by shaking their hands. He can’t now. “It might seem a stupid thing, but actually it’s a pretty big change in our behavior and our habits,” he said.
Then there’s trying to figure out how to work from home, and child care — daily stresses that, in some odd way, can feel like a blessing. They fill the days.
Courtney, a 44-year-old elementary school teacher at an international school in Rome, is teaching her students remotely. Her 4-year-old daughter is also home, since her day care is closed.
“We’ve been trying very hard to keep things normal, but the novelty hasn’t worn off yet,” Courtney told me. Her daughter “hasn’t started saying, ‘Where are my friends?’ ‘Why aren’t we going to school?’ She’s just happy mommy and daddy are around all the time.”
The stuffing of life inside means “if you just try to get out, you can’t see anybody. All the shops are closed. It’s like a desert. There is nobody. It’s kind of strange. I’ve never seen Milan like this,” Castronovo said.
“It’s like those kinds of movies, when there’s a virus or infection of some kind,” he added.
It can feel oppressive, at times — “like a prison,” one person told me. Benedetta Norelli, a 24-year-old who lives in the province of Salerno, in southern Italy, echoed the sentiment, writing in an email that“the idea of being locked up and monitored is eating up my soul.”
She said her morning anxiety was so great the other day, she decided to go for a short walk on a mountain road near the house. Two police officers stopped her and ordered her to go home. She was lucky, she says, that she wasn’t fined.
At first, she was furious — she was alone, on a deserted road, threatening no one. “After that first impulsive reaction, though, I reflected and realized that perhaps, as much as I hate this situation, acting severe is the only possible way to beat the spread of the virus.” If 10 people go out on their own for a short walk in the same deserted area, she said, that area won’t be deserted anymore.
Venturing outside is only for necessities. The recommendation is for one person to do the shopping for a household, to limit exposure. Emilio Scoti, 47, is that person for his household. A filmmaker and photographer, Scoti is currently living on the coast of northern Italy with his wife and two kids, ages 5 and 7, his mother, his cousin, his cousin’s wife, and their young daughter.
Often, too, they will order from local shops, where the food and goods can be delivered and left outside the gate. Scoti hauls the items inside in a wheelbarrow, and then, wearing gloves, sanitizes everything. “Even the bottle of wine, with alcohol and bleach,” he said. When this is done, they dry the products and quarantine even the plastic bags.
“This is probably not the most common way of contagion,” Scoti said. “But we have a saying in Italy: ‘You did 30, why not do 31,’ you know? Don’t take your chances, even in the slightest.”
He feels lucky, he said. They live on a road with few families, and they have a yard and an olive grove, where the kids can play. But he still worries. Imagine, he said, that you took every precaution, did 99 percent of the things you were supposed to do, and the coronavirus came in on a bag of rice.
Economic anxieties also hang over the lockdown
Lombardy accounts for about 20 percent of Italy’s economy. Milan is an international business headquarters, with factories and businesses that rely on the global supply chain. Italy’s economy had already been one of the most sluggish in Europe, and these disruptions are threatening even more damage.
Ylenia Stanzione, the flight attendant from Gallarate, lost her job in mid-February. She’d worked for Air Italy, which announced that it would liquidate in mid-February, ceasing flights. The airline’s bankruptcy was unrelated to the coronavirus. This was back when Italy only had a few recorded cases of the coronavirus, and long before the country, or really the rest of the world, had begun to grasp the scope and ferocity of the outbreak.
Stanzione and others protested, something they can’t do anymore because gatherings are not allowed. Stanzione has worked in the airline industry for 13 years; now, with airlines suffering huge losses as international travel has stalled, she’s struggling to imagine what other job she could possibly find. And she’s worried the government will overlook her and her colleagues, since their layoffs happened before the coronavirus hit.
She used some of the days trapped inside to update her résumé, search for jobs. Everybody is in a bad situation, she said, but there is no sense searching for a job now, when the airports are empty.
“I lost my job, I lost my dreams, I lost my hopes,” she said. “I have no job and no chance to find a job easily after all this situation, because the economy will go down, and will go down deeply.”
Ariane, 37, manages a working organic farm in southern Tuscany, a property that’s been in her family for four generations. They also host tourists, and though the season would normally be starting soon, that side of the business is completely on hold.
The farm continues to operate, though it feels a lot quieter. Lots of the day-to-day interactions are now done online, or on the phone. There is still a staff to work the farm, everyone following safety protocols. They are still shipping out orders to those who buy their products — which have actually gone up — but the pace isn’t always the same. Everything has slowed down.
“The uncertainty is just challenging if you have to manage things,” Ariane said. “I don’t think there are going to be shortages,” she added. “But you just never know.”
A surprising, unexpected unity in crisis
People are worried, but often it’s less for themselves than for their parents or grandparents. Many of the people I spoke to live with family, a partner or children, or in multigenerational households with siblings, parents, and even grandparents.
Those who do venture out don’t want to bring the virus home. Andrea, in Bergamo, lives next door to his 93-year-old grandmother, but he and the rest of the family are trying to be careful not to get too physically close to her. They’re telling her not to go outside, while reassuring her that everything is normal.
Some people Ispoke to said a disconnect exists between generations. Italy’s elderly population lived through World War II, and that has defined them, and the country. A few people told me that, at least at first, their grandparents felt that if they’d lived through the bombings of World War II, they could easily survive this.
A man plays guitar from the balcony of his home in Turin on March 13, 2020. The national lockdown has led to a renewed sense of unity among Italians.
Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images
“People remember moments that were a lot more powerful than even than this,” Scoti, the filmmaker and photographer, told me. That has helped put some of the anxiety of the moment in perspective.
“In the end, our grandpas had been asked the extreme sacrifice of their life to fight a war to protect the country,” Di Franco said. “What the majority of people are now asked is to stay home on the sofa.”
Staying home has become a national duty. “Italians are very often not united when there is a problem,” Stanzione told me, but “this time there is unity.”
“This is very beautiful to see,” she added. Those moments come with the flash mob singers belting out cherished songs from their windows, with the musicians playing from their terraces, with the Italians who come out on their balconies to cheer health care workers as they come home from long shifts.
Andrea in Bergamo told me there’s a phone number for people over age 65 to call if they need groceries delivered. Volunteers, many of them students, out of school and stuck at home, will run the errands. Di Franco has a musician friend who, with concerts now canceled, is bringing groceries to the elderly.
“This has brought out the best in the Italian culture,” Ariane, who owns the farm in Tuscany, said. Her hope, she told me, “is that this will provide renewed faith in Italy, from the population itself first.”