Lockdown Rome II: A 3rd Covid wave floods over Italy and three weeks of isolation awaits us once again
Gray skies the shade of a lonely broken highway greeted me Tuesday as I ventured out for the first time in Episode 1 of “Lockdown Rome: Season 2.” The science fiction tale of a broken, 3,000-year-old city has a different feel this time. A year ago, this city of 2.8 million felt like the day after a new Sacking of Rome. The streets were empty. Businesses were shuttered. The only noises were squawking birds and the gurgling of Rome’s thousands of fountains.
By all appearances, the second day of the lockdown Tuesday felt like just another day in my Monteverde neighborhood. Most businesses, deemed “essential,” were open. At my corner bakery, a woman in her familiar white smock and mask stuffed pastries and bread in a paper bag for a lone customer. Two people stood outside waiting to enter Pane Crociaro, the store that serves some of the best bufala mozzarella and porchetta in Rome. Burly construction workers in orange work clothes more suitable for duck hunting pounded away at the busy corner of Piazzale Dunant and Circonvallazione Gianicolense.
Lockdown Rome problems
But beneath the bustling, away from the cars that buzzed by like normal, lay a hurting people. They’re being asked to bite the bullet to wipe out Covid-19 one more time. They feel like they’re taking the bullet instead.
I walked into my corner Romagnani Caffe. It’s where I get my flaky, chocolate fagottino pastry and creamy cappuccino. I always talk to Davide, my barista, about our A.S. Roma soccer team’s latest exploits. I then take a table outside on the packed patio and read Corriere dello Sport as the sun comes up over the trees beyond.
On Tuesday, Davide was nowhere to be seen. Neither were my fagottinos. The tall window display case usually filled with yummy pastries and cakes was empty. I was one of two customers. The tables were all stacked inside like discarded books. Once again, bars and restaurants in Rome can only sell for takeaway. I asked the lone barista how business is.
“Pochi (Few),” he said, shaking his head.
I ordered a chocolate cornetto from the half-empty counter shelves and said, “In bocca al lupo (Good luck)” as I exited. He didn’t respond. It won’t be until at least after Easter, April 4, when I can take a seat at my favorite coffee bar again. Three weeks is a long time without fist bumping your barista. It’s a long time to count on pochi clients to help recover from the first lockdown.
A year and eight days ago, Italy became the first country to go into lockdown from this Covid-19 virus that quickly gained as many victims as it lost skeptics. I didn’t leave my neighborhood for a month. I spent my March 29 birthday drinking a bottle of Barolo alone and talking to my girlfriend via Whatsapp video call. Marina lives five miles away.
Yet soon, Italy became the model for how to handle the pandemic. Prime minister Giuseppe Conte, a compromise candidate given the job while the right wing coalition hammered out their differences, became a folk hero. His restrictions, including the tight lockdown, all but flattened the curve and we all had a normal summer.
Well, his government collapsed, a new strain came over from the United Kingdom and we’re in the same situation as a year ago. Our Covid curve is up, intensive care units are filling and vaccinations are a mess. New prime minister Mario Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, put nine more regions on the highest-restricted red level, including Rome’s Lazio. What is restricted? Let me count the ways:
- All restaurants and bars are closed except for takeout and delivery.
- All businesses are closed except those considered “essential” such as pharmacies, tabacchis, news agents, banks, food stores and children’s clothes stores.
- No traveling outside your neighborhood except for “essential reasons.”
- No visiting friends (see “essential reasons”).
- Schools all teach remotely.
- Anyone traveling outside their home must fill out a self auto declaration form giving contact information and listing one of three reasons for leaving: work, health or other “essential reasons” such as shopping or banking.
These tag on to the other restrictions in place since fall such as a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew, mandatory masks, closed gyms, closed cinemas and no crossing regional borders. Fines for violations range from 400-1,000 euros.
Meanwhile, our vaccinations are in a rut. Supply lines around Europe have slowed distribution. My 64-65 age group was scheduled to book our vaccination appointments on March 8. I went to the website to sign up and read that scheduling for 64-65 has been suspended until they have “more information.” I have no clue when I’ll get vaccinated. Neither does my doctor, who’s also 64. Confusion reigns; fear rises.
I swear, this country couldn’t organize an orgy.
One small businessman’s struggle
On Tuesday I went over to Via Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia, the next street over from mine, to see my friend, Carlo. Carlo Pascucci owns Stappo, a great little neighborhood birrificio where he serves a long list of fresh paninos and frosty Italian craft beers to customers in an open-air back room where we scream and cry over A.S. Roma’s games on the big-screen TV.
I saw him standing outside his bar. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Since Covid took Italy by the throat last spring, Carlo is only the second person I’ve seen without a mask. I saw my first last week when a maskless middle-aged man whisked past me turning a corner. He looked naked.
Carlo looked angry. Purposely sitting six feet away from him in his darkened back room, fully masked, I asked why he wasn’t wearing one.
“I am a healthy man,” said Carlo, 43. “This thing prevents sick people from being more contagious. But just if you’re sick. If you got flu, you should wear it. If you don’t have anything in your health that makes you vulnerable, you don’t need to wear one.”
At least he admits the virus exists. (“I am not a novax,” he said.) So we mildly debated that attitude about masks, part of which has led to the U.S. suffering 20 percent of the world’s deaths with only 4 percent of the population. But I was more interested in the life of today’s small business owner in Italy. Besides the 103,000 people who’ve died, these are the other victims.
Italy’s economy, Europe’s third largest, fell 8.9 percent last year, according to Istat, Italy’s statistical arm. The number of jobs lost totaled 420,000, including 101,000 in December with 99,000 representing women’s jobs. However, the business sector recovered in the summer after the first lockdown all but flattened the curve. Then in August vacationing Italians returned from infected areas and the curve began to rise again.
Now here comes what officials call a third wave, primarily brought on courtesy of the UK strain that comprises 54 percent of the new cases. Carlo said his business was down 80 percent last year. He received only a single stimulus check of 5,000 euros.
“I can’t believe how we’re handling this situation, how the government is handling this situation,” he said. “Lockdown doesn’t work. It works for probably 10 percent of the problem but it comes with other problems. Because lockdown generates depression, suicides, people getting alone.”
I told him about how the first lockdown actually worked. The case and deaths curves dropped dramatically and society opened up over the summer. I had a good time. I couldn’t travel because much of the world was locked down. But if you’re going to be stuck, Rome isn’t a bad place to wait out a pandemic.
Then again, I don’t own a bar. Even before the lockdown, starting in October bars and restaurants in Italy had to close at 6 p.m. except for take out and delivery. Try running a bar and closing at 6 when it usually opens at 6, such as Stappo. Close at 6? In Rome? Romans would drink hemlock before beer in the afternoon.
“The problem is so big,” he said. “In Italy, pubs don’t exist. We have bars and restaurants. Pubs aren’t even contemplated or mentioned. Our people used to drink and have fun and stay together in the pub way after work time. End of work time in Italy is 6 p.m. If you make me close when I should be open to get the people coming out of work, it’s what we call a debacle.”
Carlo adjusted. He redesigned his kitchen. Gave coffee to his neighborhood clientele in the morning and sold paninos off an upgraded menu in the afternoon. To limit overhead, he cut his four waitresses’ pay from 7 euros an hour to 5. But he laid off no one.
Now he’s looking at three weeks without a crowd while a second lockdown engulfs the city.
“In September, they did a lot of mistakes, big mistakes,” he said. “With public transport, with sports manifestations, with augmentation of the schools. And it’s not fair that we pay for everybody without receiving nothing. I’m paying with my life. I’m paying with my job. I’m paying with my losses. The price is what I lose.
“And it’s not just me. Like people who work with the tourists and the shows and the cultural world. Nobody else going to pay.”
Carlo’s solution is to up the stimulus checks or not make them pay taxes for 2000-21. In the meantime, he’s still working and hoping.
“The first days of the new lockdown I’m offering coffee and people are coming around,” he said. “They’re asking, ‘What happened?’ I say, ‘What happened? What happened is shit. Want a coffee?’”
The ugly numbers
Carlo’s views are one side of the debate. A survey in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, reported last week that 44 percent back a lockdown. That’s up from 30 per cent two weeks before. The Local, Italy’s lone source of English-language news, reported 41 percent of readers support a lockdown.
“Get it over and done with in one full lockdown,” one reader wrote. “Otherwise it’s just a game of Whack-a-Mole that everyone is growing weary of.”
A number of figures led the government to a lockdown. One that reveals the up, down and up nature of Covid’s effect on Italy is the number in intensive care:
April 3: 4,048
July 30: 50
Oct. 1: 280
Nov. 28: 3,846
Feb. 13: 3,045
In the days leading up to Friday’s lockdown announcement, Italy had 150,000 new infections the previous week, up from 131,000 the week before that. It reported an increase of 5,000 in hospitals and 600 in intensive care.
Half the hospitals and intensive care units in Italy’s 20 regions are overloaded and ordinary health services are suspended.
Italy’s seven-day average of new daily cases is 22,544, down from 34,580 on Nov. 14 but up from 186 on July 5. The seven-day daily deaths average is 360, down from 739 on Dec. 4 but up from 10 on July 24. Italy’s 102,499 total deaths equal 1,705 per 1 million people, eighth highest in the world, even higher than the United States’ 1,653.
This number, however, tipped Italy’s government to make the move: Italy’s magic number for a dangerous velocity of the contagion, known as RT, is 1.00. Sixteen of the 20 regions are at 1.00 or above.
“The memory of what happened last spring is vivid and we will do everything to prevent it from happening again,” Draghi said Friday in announcing the lockdown.
The key, as it has proven in the U.S., is vaccinations. Suddenly, Italy and the U.S. have switched positions in Covid effectiveness. According to Il Messaggero, Rome’s newspaper, Italy is vaccinating about 170,000 a day. (The U.S. is doing 2 million.) The government’s target is 200,000 by the end of March and 500,000 by the end of April. In Italy 6.8 million have received a vaccine. That’s about 11 per 100,000 people, the sixth highest in Europe. However, only 2 million have been fully vaccinated.
Supply problems have apparently been solved and The Local reported that 532,000 doses are expected in the next two weeks and we’ll be back to normal in “seven to 15 months.” That’s not an optimistic view. Still, it’s part of a European rollout of 4 million BioTech/Pfizer vaccines. European Union president Ursula von der Leyen wants 70 percent of the EU adult population vaccinated by mid-September.
Italy this week became one of 11 EU countries to block the distribution of AstraZeneca but the European Medicines Agency ruled Tuesday that the vaccine did not cause deaths in seven Italian cities as originally believed. Italy is reevaluating AstraZeneca and will make an announcement Thursday after thousands of Italians have already cancelled their appointments.
Apparently, my age group is ticketed for Johnson & Johnson, a vaccine that requires only one shot. At this point, I’ll take what’s offered. I haven’t been out of Italy in 373 days and I want my beautiful adopted country to be once again healthy, happy and free.
Plus, as in Lockdown 1, I am about to get real tired of cooking.
A final gathering of friends
Speaking of which, in trying to squeeze the last ounce of freedom before Lockdown 2, I invited my friends to The Flann O’Brien Irish pub Sunday for an A.S. Roma game and a big lunch.
A “Last Supper,” pre-lockdown style, if you will.
Lockdowns haven’t just affected Italy residents financially. It’s affecting all of us socially. According to a University of Pisa study, 21 percent of severe cases of depression could’ve been avoided if some level of activity could’ve been maintained during the last year.
And how lonely are Italians? In 2020, 3.5 million of them got a cat or a dog.
My friends and I aren’t real happy, either. However, a final afternoon at Flann’s always picks up our spirits. Flann’s is a big, sprawling pub with a mishmash of stained wood tables under big screen TVs. Before the game, between long draws from big glasses of Moretti, IPAs and Magners cider, we talked about the looming lockdown.
And the looming letdown.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter for ANSA, Italy’s wire service. “I can’t take this situation anymore. It’s too hard. In one year our politicians didn’t do anything.”
Patrick O’Byrne, my buddy from Belfast, has been in Rome three years and is upset by the hypocrisy of what’s closed and what isn’t.
“Supermarkets are full and public transport is full: buses, Metros (subways), even with people wearing masks,” he said. “Pubs are not the source of this transmission. Generally, people are either outside or socially distanced or they’re wearing masks wherever they’re moving around. The focus on the entertainment industry, particularly pubs and restaurants, is wrong.
“For the sake of the Red Zone, they should open restaurants and bars, as they (did) between midday and 6 o’clock. With all the minimizing of how many people come in, this is what should be done.”
Tom Leitner, an English teacher from Cupertino, Calif., who’s been in Rome 17 years, agrees with the lockdown.
“We have to stay vigilant,” he said. “We have to continue what’s best for saving as many lives as possible. So I’d say if this is what it takes, we need to do it. Am I happy about it? Absolutely not. I’m sick to death of wearing masks every day. I’m sick to death of going to the supermarket and it’s full of people from 9 o’clock in the morning to 8 p.m. at night, standing right next to each other within a half meter. Why do they have to close the pubs and the restaurants when the supermarkets are full of people? I’m sorry. This does not make sense to me.
“Yes, the idea to lower the curve makes sense. But if you’re going to do it, you need to do it in a way that is ubiquitous to everyone. This is not fair to the bars.”
I’m in favor of the lockdown. I saw how Italians’ pleasantly surprising adherence to rules last spring brought the case and death curves to a near flat line. I enjoyed going to the beach in Puglia which had at one point zero active cases. I think this lockdown will make it happen again. If the government pulls through with its vaccination plan, I can see me booking a trip to the Maldives by fall.
Two hours later, our fifth-place Roma choked like gagging dogs, 2-0, against Parma, 19th in the 20-team Serie A. Even more dejected, we all headed out. The wind picked up; the day grew dark. A three-week lockdown quickly approached, like a jail sentence in solitary confinement.
Rome, the Eternal City, must endure in the dark once again.