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Churches reopened for public mass and other ceremonies on May 18, but priests need to take special precautions including gloves and wearing masks.

Italy Reopens!

The long fought battle against the coronavirus in Italy that stretched the country’s medical resources to the limit has finally eased. The country has now moved into Phase Three of restarting the economy, unwinding from the nationwide lockdown after months of industrial and commercial inactivity. To the joy of the Italian population and countless devotees of Italian heritage and culture, on June 3rd, Italy ended its nationwide travel restrictions across the country, reopened its vital tourism industry and is permitting international visitors.

Italy was the first European country to impose rigid nationwide restrictions in an effort to halt the disease and has been slowly rolling back the curbs as the number of new cases has fallen. The end to travel curbs represents an enormous milestone on Italy’s road to recovery, with the government hoping to salvage the upcoming summer vacation season when Italians traditionally escape the cities for their annual summer breaks during Ferragosto.

Italy has taken a staged approach to the reopening of the country which began its lockdown on March 9th, although northern regions such as Lombardy, began restrictions even earlier. The first phase of reopening took place at the beginning of May, followed by significant easing in the middle of the month.  

Two weeks ago, life in Italy began to approach a much greater degree of normalcy than it had been the case for more than two months. There was no need to carry a certification known as an autodichiarazione, to travel within the region. The form was used to self-certify an individual’s reason for local travel or simply to be outside. Travel between regions, unless for urgent work or health reasons was, however, still prohibited.

This marked the beginning of Phase Two of the country’s emergence from the pandemic and was significant in the lives of Italians. Non-urgent travel reasons (within their home region), such as going to the mountains or even visiting another town was now permitted. Still, certain areas were off limits, such as beaches, in order to avoid crowding. The government also allowed individuals to meet up with friends again, rather than only relatives and loved ones as had been previously restricted under the lockdown rules.

The government decree did not set any formal limits on how many friends could get together, but urged everyone to avoid large gatherings, observe social distancing and wear masks if meeting friends indoors. This also marked the reopening of restaurants, cafés and bars for dining in. Previously, only takeout orders had been allowed. There are still strict rules about how far apart guests must be seated and reservations, at least for the time being, are mandatory. Shopping no longer meant a trip exclusively to the grocers; all retailers were allowed to reopen, even shopping malls and outlet centers. Shoppers are still required to wear a mask and there are limits on how many customers can enter at a time.

Another area sorely missed by most in Italy has also reopened – hair dressers, barber shops and nail salons. Patrons need to book an appointment ahead of time and wear a mask, unless the service requires them to take it off (such as trimming a beard).

Churches reopened for public Mass and other ceremonies, including Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Duomo in Milan. Worshippers must keep their distance from others and wear face masks, while Catholic priests are expected to take special precautions when hearing confession and giving communion.

Museums, libraries, exhibitions and archaeological sites also opened. Some cities decided to stagger the reopening, such as Rome, which only permitted a handful of public museums to open, but thankfully that changed on June 3rd. Popular tourist spots such as the Colosseum in Rome are now open to the public for the first time in 12 weeks. Beaches, gyms and swimming pools have also reopened, but social distancing is still required.

Each of Italy’s 20 regions has its own government and each of those has had the power to adapt national Covid-19 lockdown rules within their jurisdiction. During Phase Two of the lockdown, some local governments opted to relax the rules faster than the central government advised, a situation not like events within a number of states in America.

The northern Italian region of Alto Adige (South Tyrol) permitted all stores to reopen on May 9th. On May 11th, it became the first region to do away with autodichiarazione forms and with it, reopened restaurants, bars, hairdressers, libraries and museums. It is one of five Italian regions with special autonomous status which provides regional governments with additional constitutional powers. The four others are Aosta Valley, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia and Sicily.

Other regions began immediately pushing to follow suit. Sardinia authorized shops and hair salons to reopen on May 11th. The regions of Calabria and Veneto began allowing dine-in service at bars and restaurants with outdoor seating three weeks before the official lifting of the restriction by the government in Rome.

Meanwhile, in early May, the governors of ten regions – Abruzzo, Calabria, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria, Lombardy, Molise, Piedmont, Sardinia, Umbria and Veneto, as well as the president of the Province of Trentino, fired a shot across the bow of the national government, when they warned that each would act autonomously if Rome failed to confirm the reopening of shops, restaurants and salons on May 18th. Thankfully, the Phase Two reopening occurred with only a few minor issues associated with social distancing guidelines.

Perhaps the greatest and most sweeping of the changes is that as of yesterday, travel is allowed freely between regions and visitors from overseas will be able to enter Italy without having to submit to a two-week quarantine. This will provide a much needed boost to the tourism sector.

On June 15th, theaters and cinemas will be allowed to reopen with social distancing measures in place. Audiences will be capped at 250 for indoor venues and 1,000 for outdoor performances, while spectators will have to wear face masks and maintain social distancing. There is another downside. Theaters will no longer be allowed to sell popcorn or drinks.

Schools in Italy are not expected to reopen for summer sessions during the current academic year, but the government has already announced that schools will resume in September. The national government still asks that masks be worn in any enclosed or crowded public spaces, while some regions require people to cover their faces anywhere in public, including on the street. But the nation has turned the corner and in a big way. We can only hope that the Italian economy will rebound swiftly and that the tourism sector will see a surge as the country awaits its visitors with open arms.