Virus disrupts life in Italy as infections top 10,000

The boisterous hum of Rome dwindled to a whisper and police patrols kept people apart in cafes as Italy enforced an extraordinary, sweeping lockdown Tuesday in hopes of not becoming the next epicenter of the spreading coronavirus epidemic now that life in China is edging back to normal.

Infections in Italy topped the 10,000 mark with 10,149 cases — more than anywhere else but China — and the number of deaths from the virus rose to 631, from 463 a day earlier, Italian Civil Protection authorities said.

Travel and social restrictions that were extended across Italy illustrated how the virus and the broad disruptions it is causing are sweeping westward from China, where the outbreak began.

Teams of police patrolled cafes to make sure owners kept customers 1 meter (3 feet) apart during daylight hours and then enforced a strict 6 p.m. closure order. The streets of Rome were as quiet as they are during the capital’s annual mid-August vacation shutdown.

"It’s bad. People are terrorized," said Massimo Leonardo, who runs a market stall. "I’ve never seen anything like it."

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 116,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,000 have died.

The World Health Organization has said people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while severe cases may last three to six weeks. In mainland China, almost three-fourths of its more than 80,000 patients have recovered since December.

By encouraging many of Italy’s 62 million people to stay home and further drying up what was left of the country’s already battered tourism industry, the lockdown could increase the likelihood of a recession on the peninsula, dealing another blow to reeling global markets.

Italy’s economy, the third-largest of the 19 countries that use the euro currency, is particularly reliant on industries that require the physical presence and proximity of workers: tourism, manufacturing, and retail.

In a list of instructions titled "I’m staying home," the premier’s office said Italians shouldn’t leave home unless for work, health care or "necessities" such as grocery shopping.

It also said shops, cafes and restaurants should close at 6 p.m., a seismic restriction in a country that prizes its gastronomy, luxuries and cafe culture. Giorgio Armani announced the closure of his hotel, restaurant and boutiques in Milan due to the virus, citing ”preventative measures adopted so far to safeguard the health of the employees and customers."

Italians appeared to be trying to abide by the new rules. Lines formed outside food shops in Rome’s historic center so customers could stay apart.

"I’ll do whatever they tell me to do," said florist Stefano Fulvi. "If I have to close, I’ll close."

Internationally, Italy increasingly found itself sealed off as countries elsewhere in Europe and farther afield sought to keep infections contained.

Malta and Spain announced a ban on air traffic from Italy. Malta turned away another cruise ship and British Airways canceled all Italy flights. Austria barred travelers from crossing the border without a medical certificate, Slovenia closed its border with Italy and Albania banned Italy air and ferry traffic. Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Germany strengthened travel advisories urged their citizens to leave. Even the Vatican erected a new barricade at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.

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"Get out of northern Italy if you’re there. We don’t know how long the Italian authorities will keep the window open," said Erik Broegger Rasmussen, head of consular services for Denmark’s foreign ministry.

But in China, the diminishing threat prompted President Xi Jinping to visit the epicenter of its outbreak Tuesday and declare: "We will certainly defeat this epidemic."

Xi’s trip to the central city of Wuhan — his first since the start of the outbreak — was the latest sign that China is edging back toward normal after weeks of extreme quarantine measures. China reported just 19 new infections Tuesday, down from thousands each day last month.

"Things are slowly returning to normal," said Yang Tianxiao, a finance worker in Beijing, where the city government is gradually easing restrictions that kept many office workers home.

But in growing swaths of the globe outside China, virus-related disruptions were increasingly becoming the new normal. More than 100 countries — over half of the United Nations’ membership — have now confirmed cases. Panama and Mongolia, which borders China, were among the latest. Congo and Burkina Faso also confirmed their first cases, increasing the number of infections in Africa to 105 in 11 countries.

France’s government advised voters to bring their own pens to local elections Sunday so they won’t have to share. Morocco reported its first death of a virus-infected person — only the second confirmed fatality in Africa. The United Nations announced the closure of its New York headquarters complex to the general public and temporarily suspended all guided tours.

In Spain and France, soccer’s biggest stars prepared to play in empty stadiums. Bans on public gatherings silenced entertainers. Sony Pictures delayed the launch of "Peter Rabbit 2" to August.

The virus reached into the corridors of power. In the United States, several senior politicians were self-quarantined. At least two top European military commanders tested positive for the virus after a conference on an American military base in Germany, and the commander of U.S. Army Europe isolated himself in case he also was exposed.

Growing numbers of children were being taught online, as school closures spread. The outbreak has interrupted schooling for nearly 363 million students worldwide, with 15 countries imposing nationwide school closures and 14 implementing localized closures, spanning Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America, the U.N.’s education agency said. Greece and Macedonia were the latest to shutter all schools, universities and kindergartens.

The virus has shaken global markets, with stocks on Monday taking their worst one-day beating on Wall Street since 2008 and oil prices suffering their most brutal losses since the start of the 1991 Gulf War.

On Tuesday, U.S. stocks, oil and other financial markets around the world clawed back some ground after their historic plunge the previous day on hopes that the U.S. and other governments will pump in more aid for the virus-weakened global economy.

But market watchers said investors are likely to see more big swings until the number of infections decelerates, and fear was still rampant that economies stood at the brink of recession. The travel industry is taking a beating: Europe’s airports said they expect 187 million fewer passengers this year.

"We are in a global panic," said Estelle Brack, an economist in Paris. "We are in the deep unknown."

Xi’s trip to Wuhan was the latest effort by the ruling Communist Party to shed a favorable light on its handling of the crisis. Xi was conspicuously absent from the public eye in the early days of the outbreak and alarms were not sounded until late January. Wuhan and nearby cities — over 60 million people — have been locked down since then.

Xi addressed patients and medical workers via a video link. He also strolled through an apartment complex where residents are still quarantined.

"Wuhan must prevail, Hubei must prevail, all of China must prevail," Xi said.

Italy’s travel restrictions were scheduled to last through April 3 and violators risked up to three months in jail or fines of 206 euros ($225).

In Soave, a wine-producing town near Verona, normal bustling streets were nearly deserted. Cafe owner Valentino Bonturi said he was making sure that patrons weren’t bunched together, stopping them from standing at counters.

"We follow the rules," he said.