Like China, Italy now adopting sweeping month-long lockdown

Italy became the first democracy to attempt a major lockdown of 16 million people for nearly a month to halt new coronavirus.

Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP
Customers are scarce at a cafe in Rome on March 7, 2020. Italy is taking a hit to its already weak economy as the northern part of the country is now under quarantine.

Italy took a page from China’s playbook on Sunday, attempting to lock down 16 million people – more than a quarter of its population – for nearly a month to halt new coronavirus.

Weddings and museums, movie theaters and shopping malls are all affected by the new restrictions, which focus on a swath of northern Italy but are disrupting daily life around the country. Confusion reigned after the quarantine was announced, with residents and tourists from Venice to Milan trying to figure out how and when the new measures would be put into practice.

Travelers crammed aboard standing-room-only trains.

After mass testing uncovered more than 7,300 infections, Italy now has registered more cases of the virus than any country but China, where the disease is in retreat. The death toll in the country rose to 366.

Around the globe, more and more events were canceled or hidden behind closed doors, from the pope’s Sunday service to a Formula One car race in Bahrain to a sumo competition in Japan, where wrestlers arrived at the arena were required to use hand sanitizer before entering. In Saudi Arabia, officials announced all schools and universities would be closed starting Monday, following the lead of other Gulf countries. Questions grew about whether to maintain U.S. presidential campaign rallies and take steps in the U.S. to close off sporting events to the public.

Worldwide stock markets tumbled on Monday over economic concerns. Japan's Nikkei index closed down 5 percent. The state oil giant Saudi Aramco led the financial losses, dropping by 10% on Riyadh's Tadawul stock exchange and forcing a halt to Aramco's trading. Tadawul remained open, but Boursa Kuwait's premier market shut down within 30 minutes of opening on Monday as stocks again dropped by 10%, the third such emergency halt to trading in recent days.

The drop came as global oil prices suffered their worst losses since the start of the 1991 Gulf War. OPEC failed to make a production cut deal with Russia Friday and Moscow threatened to boost crude output. 

Earlier on Monday, coronavirus fears led Saudi Arabia to cut off air and sea travel with Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, South Korea, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. The kingdom had earlier closed off its land borders as well.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte signed a quarantine decree early Sunday for the country's prosperous north. Areas under lockdown include Milan, Italy's financial hub, and the main city in Lombardy; and Venice, the main city in the neighboring Veneto region. The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.

Tourists in the region, including those from abroad, were free to head home, the Italian transport ministry said, noting that airports and train stations remained open.

The pope, who has been reported to have cold, held his Sunday blessing by video instead of in person, even though he was not directly affected by the lockdown. He described feeling like he was “in a cage.”

It’s a feeling familiar in China, where the government locked down about 60 million people in central Hubei province in late January. Six weeks later, they are still effectively stuck.

The World Health Organization has said China’s move helped the rest of the world prepare, and WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted his support Sunday for Italians and their “bold, courageous steps aimed at slowing the speed of the coronavirus.”

China has suffered about three-fourths of the world's 109,000 coronavirus infections and most of its 3,800 deaths. New infections in China have leveled off, however, and most of those infected, in China and globally, have already recovered.

With a nose-dive in tourist traffic and major disruptions to supply chains worldwide, stocks struggled on Sunday. Mideast indexes fell 4% to 10%.

Italy is closing all museums and archaeological sites, even those far from the lockdown zone. It suspended all weddings until April 3. The northern regions concerned by Sunday’s decree are closing cinemas and ski slopes.

Eateries all around Italy are expected, somehow, to keep patrons a meter away from each other.

The Vatican Museums are now closed, including the Sistine Chapel, in yet another blow to Italy’s all-important tourism industry. Alitalia, the Italian airline that was already financially ailing, suspended all national and international flights from Milan’s Malpensa airport starting Monday.

Lombardy’s governor, who is in quarantine himself, sought to calm the public, discouraging hoarding and insisting “we’re not going to war.”

Chaos erupted in the hours before Conte signed the decree, as word leaked about the planned quarantine.

Students at the University of Padua in northern Italy who had been out at bars on a Saturday night saw the reports on their phones and rushed back to the train station.

Tensions over the restrictions triggered a riot at a prison in Modena by inmates angered that their loved ones would not be able to visit, the Italian daily La Repubblica reported. The inmates eventually surrendered.

In a reversal of the stereotypical north-south tensions in Italy, the governor of Puglia urged northerners to stay away. “Get off at the first railway station. Don’t take planes,” Gov. Michele Emiliano said in his dramatic appeal. “Turn around in your cars, get off the pullman buses at the next stop.”

By Sunday afternoon, residents of northern Italy remained confused.

Factory worker Luca Codazzi was set to come out of a two-week quarantine at midnight Sunday – but instead was facing new limits on his freedom.

The government decree “was badly written, there are very many interpretations,’’ he said. “In theory, the cordon should go down at midnight,’’ Mr. Codazzi said. He still doesn't know whether his factory will be open on Monday.

Governments across Europe tightened their rules. Bulgaria banned all indoor public events. France’s president and Germany's governing parties held emergency security meetings as the number of cases in each country surpassed 1,000.

In waters around the world, the cruise ship industry was in disarray.

The Grand Princess cruise ship, where 21 people have tested positive for the virus, was heading Sunday to Oakland after idling off San Francisco for days. It expects to land on Monday. Americans will be transferred to facilities around the country for testing and isolation, but it's not yet clear what will happen to passengers from many other countries.

Canadian officials said Sunday they will dispatch a plane to pick up more than 200 citizens who are aboard. 

Another cruise ship is in quarantine on the Nile in Egypt with 45 confirmed virus cases. Two other ships with no confirmed cases were turned away this weekend from Malaysia and Malta amid virus fears.

Advice to the public continues to vary. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged older adults and people with severe medical conditions to "stay home as much as possible" and avoid crowds. A federal official told The Associated Press that the White House had overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and sick Americans not fly on commercial airlines too. A spokesman for U.S. Vice President Mike Pence denied that.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Angela Charlton reported from Paris. AP writers Nicole Winfield and Trish Thomas in Rome, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Chris Blake in Bangkok, Adam Geller and Maria Sanminiatelli in New York, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Anna Johnson in London, David Rising in Berlin, and Jonathan Poet in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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