I Am Quarantined in Northern Italy. Here’s What It’s Like.
This morning, I stopped by a coffee bar near my house. I’ve become friends with the barista, Stefano. As Stefano prepared my macchiato lungo, he said he had some sad news. His father, who had been ill for some time, had died. The funeral was canceled because of the restrictions imposed on the region.
Stefano placed my coffee on the counter. Normally, in an Italian coffee shop, you stand at the bar and drink the tiny cup of espresso. I took a few sips as we continued talking. A guy with his phone to his ear, apparently a co-worker, stepped over and rapped sharply on the bar. I’d violated a rule. All customers, per the decree, are to sit at tables. This is part of the mandate that people are to maintain a one-meter distance from each other. Stefano said that if a policeman drove by and saw me drinking coffee at the counter, he could be fined several thousand euros. He also reported that city officials had been driving past with bullhorns, urging everybody to stay inside.
Yesterday, at the local supermarket, a man in a uniform…directed everyone to get a large shopping cart. He explained that the large carts help create greater distance between people.
As I stood to leave, he said, “The problem is in our minds. These restrictions are terrible.”
After coffee, I stopped by the doctor’s office to get a prescription. The doctor emerged wearing a large blue surgical mask. At the farmacia, the pharmacists were also wearing masks.
Around town, many businesses are closed. The macellerie (butcher shops) were open, as were all of the grocery stores. Restaurants have been ordered to close in the evenings. All events and gatherings, including weddings, funerals, and outdoor sporting events, are canceled. Dance studios, cinemas, gyms, galleries, all schools, libraries, and many other places where the public gathers in close proximity are closed — and those who run these places are sitting idle.
Yesterday, at the local supermarket, a man in a uniform guarded the turnstiles at the store entrance. He directed everyone to get a large shopping cart and not use the smaller ones. He explained that the large carts help create greater distance between people. A station had been set up with plastic gloves and hand sanitizer. Unlike two weeks ago, the initial stages of panic had subsided. The store was fully stocked, and the number of people shopping seemed about normal.
A few days ago, in the piazza in Chiavenna, a small town north of here, people were greeting each other with prayer hands and bows rather than kisses and handshakes. There were many people out and about, and the atmosphere actually seemed rather festive.
Consequences from the quarantine, however, are showing up. Many people have lost their source of income. I met a woman who works for a language school. Her work came to a halt because of the restrictions, and there was no financial safety net.
A ubiquitous impact of the restrictions is canceled trips. My wife and I pulled the plug on four trips. Most fees for trains, planes, and lodging were fully refunded due to the nature of the emergency. Nearly everyone we’ve talked to has canceled trips.
This is bad news for the travel industry. The big rush of tourists to Italy, beginning with Easter, may be a bust. Combined with existing troubles, such as the floods last winter in Venice and chronic high unemployment, Italy could very well be on the verge of a deep recession — with ripples to many other countries.
At age 65, I am anziano, or elderly. I am supposed to hole up in the house except for necessary trips to the store or the doctor. I do not know yet how much this is monitored. I have a car that’s dead in the water and some other things that need attention. Weather permitting, I plan to get out on my bike for exercise. There’s a possibility I could be stopped and sent home.
The psychological effect is disturbing. Because I do not know anybody who has the virus, nor have I heard of anybody who knows directly of a case, there’s a disconnect. It is difficult to tell if this is a real emergency or not. It feels very much that most of the measures in place are rather ridiculous.
Perhaps the draconian measures in Italy are, in fact, heroic.
And yet, there are harrowing stories from the front lines. Dr. Daniele Macchini, an intensive care unit physician in Bergamo, a city northeast of Milan, wrote a stunning description of what it’s like to work in a hospital where exhausted staff battle to save patients.
At times like this, what we need more than anything are calm, rational, and trustworthy public officials on whom we can rely for guidance. Public officials and the news industry have squandered their believability through innumerable instances of lies, spin, shallow thinking, lack of transparency, and corruption. This has created fertile ground for sinister undercurrents of suspicion. Perhaps this is a drill to get the public used to obeying orders — a pilot test of large-scale social control using a virus for cover. Or maybe this is an actual emergency whose source is a mystery. Perhaps the draconian measures in Italy are, in fact, heroic.
Regardless, I’m thankful that I am safe and living in a healthy environment. We were able just now to receive a large delivery of organic produce, so in a sense, nothing is lacking (for me).
My heart goes out to those who are losing their livelihood and to those who have become seriously ill from the virus. However uncomfortable, living in lockdown — by contrast — is totally bearable.
Update, Tuesday March 10, 2020: The entire country is now under quarantine. When leaving the house, we are now supposed to have a hall pass called an autocertificazione per gli spostamenti. It’s a form you fill out stating the nature of your travel. The police are stopping people at traffic circles and questioning them.