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Severe new nationwide restrictions are threatening the Italian way of life

On Friday evening, 45-year-old Ferigo Foscari left the Milan office of the international law firm where he is a partner, and commuted to his family home in Venice, as he has done almost every week for the last four years.

He recently began driving the 170 miles between the two cities, after deciding that train travel during a virus outbreak was simply too risky. And he ceased socializing too, finding himself alone in the city’s restaurants on the rare occasion when he ventured out during the week.

But then this Monday morning, rather than return to his workplace in the country’s financial capital, he stayed at home with his wife and two daughters, and simply turned on his laptop.

“From the productivity perspective, there’s no difference,” he said of his new circumstances. “It’s slightly less comfortable.”

Every one of his friends and contacts working at financial institutions in Italy’s banking capital have also been sent home, and although some of his clients are apparently starting to question whether they should move forward with certain transactions, he says for the time being he and his colleagues remain worried about the impact of the new coronavirus “on people first, on the economy afterwards.” 

VENICE, Italy – March 10, 2020: An empty piazza in the Italian city of Venice, where strict new government regulations in response to the coronavirus have frightened away tourists.

Ferigo Foscari

Foscari echoed Italians up and down the country that spoke to CNBC Tuesday, after the government introduced restrictive measures Monday night across the country’s entire population, requiring citizens to work from home when possible, travel only when necessary and avoid large gatherings at all times.

Like many of his compatriots, Foscari acknowledged that his level of concern had dramatically spiked in recent days, based on the infection transfers, mortality rates and hospital capacities that are now a relentless focus of national conversation.

“If you’d have called me two weeks ago,” he said in a phone interview from his family home, adjoining that of his elderly architect parents, “I would not have been conscious. And people are not conscious enough. But people will become conscious very very soon.”

He reeled off publicly available statistics about the deadly impact of the coronavirus in Italy so far, concluding that authorities had clearly been unprepared and had acted too slowly. But he admitted the circumstances represented “untested waters” around the world, and said it was easy “to sit in my room and say that they got it wrong.”

VENICE, Italy – March 10, 2020: Teresa Foscari, 10, and Federica Foscari, 14, on a late night walk around their empty home city of Venice with their father, attorney Ferigo Foscari.

Ferigo Foscari

In Rome, Andrea Farletti, 36, was tidying up the wine cellar in his Michelin-starred restaurant, Marco Martini, Tuesday afternoon, while a handful of chefs cleaned out fridges and wiped down work surfaces in the ground floor kitchen above.

He has spent his entire adult life in the hospitality industry and opened the restaurant close to the Coliseum four years ago. With roughly 150 covers a day in his 30-seat space, he and his partner typically turn over around 100,000 euros ($113,633) a month.

Fixed overheads currently swallow more than half that amount, including salaries for 16 staff, with rent at 12,000 euros a month for the building. And even though the past Friday and Saturday nights the restaurant had been fully booked out, Farletti had already planned to shutter his business before the government’s latest efforts to combat the coronavirus nationwide.

“They should have done this before, I think it’s too late,” he said of the once localized restrictions that turned nationwide overnight.

He said he was lucky to have no debts to banks, suppliers or his landlord, unlike many of his peers in the Eternal City: “I’m quite sure that lots of restaurants will never open again.” Even so, he said he could only survive until early April without some form of financial support from the Italian treasury.

An empty Rome restaurant close to the Coliseum, Michelin-starred Marco Martini, which co-owner Andrea Farletti closed to customers this week

Andrea Farletti

Businesswoman Angelica Krystle Donati said her family construction firm, Donati SPA, was fortunate to have not yet broken ground on two major new projects. But on Tuesday, workers had downed tools at its sites in and around Rome as well as in the city of L’Aquila, where her teams were contracted by government agencies to restore old buildings that had been severely damaged during a 2009 earthquake.

On Friday night she had planned to fly north for some skiing in the Italian Alps, but after she canceled that trip she was by Monday night alone in the capital city, watching the government announcements live on television.

Throughout the evening she sought out reassurances and insights from friends and colleagues via phone messaging groups, but found herself reliving the imagined experience of her grandparents more than 80 years earlier.

“I thought this is what it must have felt like when people found out that they were going to war. I was so scared,” she said by phone, her voice catching in her throat. “It was the most gut-wrenching experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

During the early afternoon on Tuesday, Donati returned from an aborted trip to her local pharmacy, where a “one in, one out” policy had created long lines that she thought had — in turn — created an excessively hazardous large gathering. The government had done the right thing, she insisted, but had taken the wrong approach, and the lack of well-publicized information was startling.

“I was shocked by how many people are out and about, because they don’t really know what’s going on, they don’t know what they can and can’t do,” she said. 

One Italian to retain a sense of humor about the national lockdown is Marta Galliani, a family law practitioner focused on divorce cases in Milan, where courts remain closed.

“After these weeks I will have much work,” she laughed, positing a potential upside to the new measures that will keep Italians stuck indoors with family members.

“People are having to stay in the house and will fight with each other.” But she was relieved that her 14-year-old daughter was at last taking the restrictions on movement seriously, describing how the teenager had spent the morning at home attending math, Latin and ancient Greek lessons through an online teaching portal, rather than socializing with classmates in person. 

Galliani’s partner Stefano Formentini, who designs costumes for commercial television shows and advertisers, said some small video-editing firms he knew had stayed open, and news and sports shows had stayed on air. But during soap operas and dramas broadcast on Italian television, he said a small subtitle had been added to scenes that showed characters kissing or acting in close physical contact: “This program was recorded before the 1st of March,” reads the message.

He said the new limitations on personal interaction would become a “very very big problem” for freelancers like himself, since it was impossible for him to work without physical contact. “I dress people,” he scoffed, arguing adamantly; “we will find a way to work, because I know this market.”

His 80-year-old mother in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, though, was far less optimistic, he explained. “She stays at home and is very, very scared.”  

The Trevi Fountain is closed for visitors in Rome, Italy on March 10, 2020, within the measures taken following the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.

Baris Seckins | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Italy’s older demographic has been one reason for the virus’ high mortality rate so far, according to medical experts, since older individuals tend to have weaker immune systems and appear to be more susceptible to the respiratory infections that are characteristic of COVID-19.

Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, a retired literary professor who has lived her entire life in Venice said the city had been “quite fun in the beginning, but it’s no longer fun, with no tourists.”

As a 79-year-old, Zorzi recognizes that elderly members of society — like herself — are more at risk from the virus, and so she and her husband had already started last week to take precautions with family members including their children and grandchildren.

“When we need something,” she said, “we leave something outside their house or vice versa.” She says she does not mind staying at home, where she continues to work on the English translation of one of her earlier biographical works. “But it is quite surreal,” she says of the empty streets outside, even in comparison to what she remembers of life in La Serenissima as a young child during World War II. 

Commuters, some wearing a respiratory mask, travel in the underground metro in downtown Milan on March 10, 2020.

Miguel Medina | AFP | Getty Images

Venetian lawyer Foscari says he has found it difficult to convince his octogenarian parents to stay at home and not work, though he says at their age they are both “on the death row” if they contract the virus.

He remains sanguine about the prospect that people will lose jobs, and companies will go bust, and says Italians may ultimately forgive the government for such severe economic consequences if the worst-case scenario can be avoided.

“If you take drastic measures, which may make your country go bankrupt, you do it only because you think you will otherwise have hundreds of thousands of people die,” he said.