MILAN (Reuters Breakingviews) - In Italy, the morning espresso no longer tastes the same. A ban on serving customers at bar counters is among a myriad of inconvenient restrictions to the quotidian Italian lifestyle imposed by a countrywide quarantine, enacted on Monday to fight Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
But for Fulvio Rossi, owner of the historical Hodeidah coffee roastery in my Milan neighbourhood, this could mean going out of business. His daily flow of around 600 customers, already halved after Italy introduced initial containment measures in late February, is now just a trickle – and certainly not enough to support the shop’s five employees.
A love of food and carefree socialising with family and friends forms the essence of Italy’s much-envied lifestyle. Together with the country’s artistic heritage and natural beauty, it contributes to an alluring mix that attracts more than 60 million foreign visitors annually and generates 42 billion euros of revenue. But faced with an explosion of over 10,000 Covid-19 cases by March 10, including 631 deaths, the country immortalised by Federico Fellini in “La Dolce Vita” is having to reconsider its identity.
To slow the contagion, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has barred until April 3 non-essential movements for 60 million Italians, shut schools and banned public and private gatherings, from operas like “Salome” at La Scala, to funerals. The measures, which recall restrictions introduced in 14th-century Venice to tame the bubonic plague, don’t go as far as halting trains and public transport, as China did in the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan. Italian factories remain open and goods can be transported.
But the measures have nonetheless dried up Italy’s everyday life, scared tourists off and whacked the country’s economy. Particularly vexing for restaurants and cafes is a requirement to have clients seated at a one-meter safety distance and to stop serving at 6.00 p.m. In Italy’s financial centre of Milan, right inside the worst-hit region of Lombardy, this has flatly killed the after-work ritual of the aperitivo, a feast of drinks and nibbles enjoyed in groups. The city’s lively nightlife, which accounts for a fifth of the 150 billion euros generated by food and entertainment nationally, has evaporated.
Shopping, aside from basic food stockpiling, is also grinding to a halt amid medical warnings to stay indoors, politicians’ requests to keep non-essential activity to a minimum, and simple panic. Milan’s swanky 32,000-square metre City Life shopping centre, Italy’s largest urban mall, was practically empty on a Monday afternoon visit. By Tuesday, around half the shops across this 1.4 million-person city had temporarily closed, says local retail lobby head Marco Barbieri, including well-known brands Giorgio Armani and Geox. This will badly shrink the 20 billion euros a year Italy’s fashion capital produces in sales.
Italy’s travails offer a preview of the economic sacrifice other developed countries may need to make. The crisis is also exposing challenge of fighting a health emergency in an ageing society such as Italy’s. Some 14 million Italians, or 23% of the population, are aged 65 or above, the oldest population in Europe. This is problematic, as the new virus seems to hit the elderly the hardest.
Most victims reported so far in Italy were older than 70, often with pre-existing conditions. This may explain Italy’s coronavirus death rate of 6%, nearly twice the global average. Elderly patients are also more likely to require intensive care, putting additional pressure on the healthcare system. If the steep rise in infections continues, hospitals would need to make some hard choices about who to assist, warned Luca Lorini, an emergency room head in Bergamo. This is an ominous warning for developed nations that are increasingly having to battle coronavirus outbreaks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that up to 70% of the population will be infected by the virus before it runs its course.
Milanese entrepreneurs, a combative lot who have weathered two economic crises in just over a decade, are trying to figure out ways to keep their businesses afloat while the sickness rages. My hairdresser, Paola, has equipped staff at her salon with filtered face masks to reassure clients. Restaurant-owner Luca Piovan is considering home food delivery, an activity not covered by the ban, to keep up with a 100,000 euro payroll and utilities bill and avoid folding his business.
Small businesses like these, which comprise the fabric of Italy’s economy, are most vulnerable to exceptional circumstances. Along with “la dolce vita”, they too risk becoming coronavirus victims.
Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.
Sign up for a free trial of our full service at https://www.breakingviews.com/trial and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at www.breakingviews.com. All opinions expressed are those of the authors.