Dispatch from the Road

Italy's Soft Opening: Emerging from Coronavirus

by Erica Firpo
Rome Waiting in line — at a safe distance — in Rome. Photos by Erica Firpo.

We checked back in with Erica Firpo, our editor in Rome, to hear how Italy is entering phase two of coronavirus, taking baby steps to get back to life as we knew it. This is reprinted with permission from her blog, Ciao Bella.

"Chi va piano va sano e lontano."

There is an Italian expressions that says, "those who go slowly go safely and far." In English, we say "slow and steady wins the race." Exactly the plan for Italy Phase 2, the new decree that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte detailed in an April 26 evening press conference. Phase 2 isn’t a new normal, and frankly, it’s absolutely not a race of any sorts. Instead, Phase 2 is an extremely soft opening, where the country flexes very slightly on its lockdown measures while painstakingly rolling out a few possibilities to get us a little bit closer to normal in a series of stages for what could potentially be a new beginning. 

Translation: The entire country has been given two-week soft opening from May 4 to 18 in which our daily lives continue pretty much the same as they have been since March 11 with a few updates. The Italian government wants to move the country forward out of this neverending fermata and into something productive, progressive and pleasing for everyone. 

But a jump start into action is the not the plan. We are not opening the country, our homes, shops, hotels, museums, and business to the people on May 4. We are slowly peering out the door for a new kind of societal reintegration.

Phase 2: May 4 to 18

Home Evasion: Since March 11, we’ve been at home. And just like everywhere else (or so it seems), there has been nowhere to go until the recent trickling of necessity shops, like kids clothing stores and bookstore. On April 27, manufacturing, construction, real estate and wholesale companies began to prep for the possible restart of operations in May. 

What about all of us at home? We are still here. Eventually, we’ll go back into offices, business, and shops, but there is no singular date. People want out — they are already starting to walk around with more frequency — and on May 4, the government is letting us outdoors just a wee bit more by allowing those of us who aren’t home to return to our legal residences, and even travel from one region to the next. For the rest of us, we’ll be able to get takeout from the local caffè and even restaurants (with strict social distancing enforced). We’ll get out to the parks, which are slated to open (at the discretion of local governments) so we can finally walk, skip, run, or jog to our heart’s delight for more than the 200-meters lockdown limit. Not in groups, not with teams, just you (and your Covid family) for some much needed distanced recreation. No matter what we are doing, we will still need the infamous auto-certifications.

Watching the grass grow between the cobblestones of Piazza Navona.

Family visitation: It’s not easy being locked down without a loved one. (Or in some cases, with a loved one.) We’ve been at home with the family we had on March 11, nothing more, nothing less. Starting May 4, the government will allow us to see family members who have been separated, with the caveat that travel is restricted to the same region. Note: “Family” has become a contentious topic. It was not adequately defined, and it definitely leaves a lot of people alone. For us, this means we can visit the 18-year-old daughter we haven’t seen in 54 days, but we will not be visiting my aunts and uncles. Most of them have are older than 70, and it would be absolutely ridiculous and irresponsible to personally check on all of them when their immediately family is able to do so. We’ll happily settle for phone calls and FaceTime, with the hope that by May 18th, the virus curve will have fully flatlined. Eventually, we will be allowed to see extended family and friends.

If you love Italy, keep your distance - Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, 26 April 2020

Conte and the Italian government want us to keep up social distancing, while slowly introducing us back to our cities. I don’t think it’s a difficult requirement. We just need practice, and that’s what Phase 2 is about — establishing new habits and resisting old ones. Yesterday, as I walked to my alimentari in Campo de’ Fiori, I saw my friend Francesca walking toward me. She was the first friend I’ve seen in 50 days. It was a pleasant surprise. But as we both stopped to say hello, I noticed she was hesitant because I started to approach her. That’s when I had to remind myself that I could not give her hug, nor get anywhere close to her. It sucks, but that’s the new game plan.

Phase 2: May 18 and Forward

May 18 seems like a big date, but it is still part of the rehearsal Phase 2 with more logistics. If all goes well, museums may be opening on May 18, with restaurants, bars, gelaterie, and hair and nail salons targeted for June 1. Many of the rules and details have yet to be announced, which means we have absolutely no idea what this — our social lives, our entertainment, our country — will be like logistically. Will we only be allowed at restaurants with masks, plastic utensils, and family members but no friends? Will museum entry require temperature checks and reservations to a limited few? We don’t know. What else will be open? So far gyms, cinemas, schools, summer camps, and sports clubs remain closed.

What does this mean for me and what does that mean for you?

Italy after May 18 or June 1 is still a big question mark. At present, we do not have a clear idea of how “up and running” the country will be, or in what form. What we do know is that we do not have immediate plans to open our doors to international tourism. No Schengen country has concrete plans: They are all trying to work out the viability of cross-country tourism. 

In the meantime, Italian regional and local governments, along with hotel, restaurant, and tour associations, are discussing how to encourage and promote domestic travel. Should you plan to take advantage of cheap flights to Rome for September? Sure, only if they're fully refundable.

Italy needs to move slow in order to move forward, and we will continue to keep our distance and politely avoid each other. I know that many find this outside the Italian personality norm, which it is. I’ve been asked: Will it be possible for Italians to patiently wait in lines and not crowd the counters once lockdown ends? Will hugs and kisses return after lockdown? Will anyone actually follow the rules? I hope so, but I don’t know. 

What we do have going for Phase 2 is that Italy and its people have done a really great job abiding by the lockdown rules. I’m hoping they will keep it up because, like me, they love and value the Italy of open piazzas, chance encounters, incredible beauty, delicious cuisine, and amazing artisans — even more than baci e abbracci.

Get more insider intel and interviews from Erica on Ciao Bella, her website and podcast.