Italy tries a return to some normalcy after virus closures

AP News
February 28, 2020 - 3:03 pm
A cleaner sanitizes a wagon on a regional train, at the Garibaldi train station in Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.

Luca Bruno/AP Photo

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ROME (AP) — Authorities in Italy moved Friday to reopen schools and museums amid the coronavirus outbreak in the country which has the most cases outside of Asia. Italians yearned for a return to normal life even as other European countries were introducing restrictions or closures to rein in the spread of the disease.

Even in the most heavily affected regions — Lombardy and Veneto in the north, where some entire small towns have been under quarantine in the heart of the outbreak — political leaders said Friday they hope health authorities will let them open schools next week.

At least 821 people have tested positive in Italy, almost entirely in the country's productive north, where scientists have been trying to determine just how the outbreak, with no known link to China's massive epidemic, began.

“The aim is to return to normalcy,'' Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia told state TV in an interview, noting that 79 of the 133 people in Veneto with the virus “have no symptoms and are in perfect health.”

At least in Lombardy, it appeared that restrictions, such as museum and school closures would be extended for another week.

“We are asking people to make some sacrifice for a little longer” based on scientific advice, Lombardy health official Giulio Gallera told reporters Friday evening.

“It's not an easy situation," said Dr. Massimo Galli, a top official at Milan's Sacco Hospital. "Let's forget about thinking it can be easily resolved, even though it's not popular to say that.”

Galli said health authorities are aiming to reduce the current rate of transmission of two or two and a half cases from each infected person to less than one.

More than half of Italy's positive cases "are asymptomatic or have very slight symptoms," without need for hospitalization, National Civil Protection chief Angelo Borrelli said.

While Italy is looking to ease restrictions, other parts of the world are still closing down activities and venues in an attempt to rein in the virus' spread. The World Health Organization's chief said Friday that 24 cases have been exported from Italy to 14 countries.

Italy's neighbor, Switzerland, on Friday banned all events involving more than 1,000 people until March 15, including the annual Geneva International Motor Show.

In Japan, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea will be closed from Saturday to March 15, operator Oriental Land Co., said. In South Korea, which has the next highest number of cases in the world after China, the popular K-Pop group BTD canceled a concert planned for April in Seoul.

France saw case totals suddenly jump to 38, prompting authorities to test a raft of people, limit some public activities and try to determine the source of the latest infections.

Most are concentrated in the Oise region north of Paris, where a teacher with the virus died this week and where the source of the outbreak is unknown.

Germany has reported 53 cases. Spain has experienced an uptick in cases, raising the tally to 32 by Friday, with all but three of them linked to Italy's outbreak.

The first case in remote Iceland apparently was a local man who had recently traveled to northern Italy. Icelandic authorities were trying to track his travels abroad, apparently outside Italy's outbreak area.

Since Thursday night, new cases with links to Italy have been reported in Nigeria — the first known case in sub-Saharan Africa — United Arab Emirates, Greece, France, Lithuania and the Netherlands.

Moves to ease some restrictions in Italy began in areas where few cases were reported. A tribunal in the east central region of Marche suspended a regional ordinance that had shut down schools and museums, but that suspension was challenged, leaving schools likely closed there for another week. Among Marche's six known cases, one patient is a student.

In the western region of Liguria, which has reported about 20 cases, local administrators decided that students could resume school next week.

The majority of Italy's cases have been reported in Lombardy, a populous region that includes Italy's financial hub, Milan.

One of Milan's top tourist attractions, the iconic Gothic cathedral known as the Duomo, will open to guided tours on Monday, but Masses still haven't been scheduled. The bustling metropolis has resembled more of a ghost town lately, as workers stayed home and tourism dwindled, as in other parts of Italy.

Ten towns in Lombardy are under quarantine, after nearly all the early cases of COVID-19 were clustered there, with no known link to the virus outbreak in China.

Researchers at Milan's Sacco Hospital announced that they had isolated in four patients an Italian variation of COVID-19, with differences from the strain identified in Wuhan, China, where the epidemic began. They expressed hope the discovery could lead to more targeted treatment of patients.

Research suggests the virus might have been present for some time in Italy before cases started exploding in Lombardy. “The virus has been circulating under the radar for a few weeks,” Galli, the hospital's director of biomedical and clinical services, told state TV.

Bianca Carbone from Harleysville, Montgomery County is studying at Penn State but is in London for an internship on healthcare policy. 

Carbone had planned on traveling to Venice for Spring break, until the virus showed up there. 

"One of my trips, I was going to travel to Venice, Italy. But after the outbreak in Venice, I'm too afraid to go so I'm canceling my trip," she said.

As for London, Carbone says there are a lot more people walking around in face masks, and her study program is sending out a lot of warnings about how to protect yourself from the virus. 

"It's all we talk about in my classes, because I'm studying healthcare. So we discuss a lot about how the WHO is responding to everything. But not much has changed. All I know is that my program sends out a lot of warnings and how to protect yourself from the virus," she added. 

Needless to say, back up plans for spring break are in the works.

The drop in tourism, one of Italy's biggest industries, is also being keenly felt in Veneto's most famous city, Venice, which lives off tourism.

“Tourism has been brought to its knees” Veneto's governor said, noting that that sector brings revenues of 18 billion euros ($19.8 billion). “It's the biggest industry in Veneto,” Zaia said.

The Italian government scheduled a Cabinet meeting expected to focus on mitigating economic damage, which could push the nation's long-stagnant economy into a recession.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said that among the suffering sectors were hotels, which have been forced to return reservation deposits. "They are experiencing a liquidity problem,'' said Franceschini, adding that cancellations were running as high as 80 percent in some places, including many locations without infections.

“I'm about to lose everything if it continues like this,” said Emanuela Soppelsa, who owns the 60-guest Hotel Al Parco near Moena in an Italian ski resort area. She told The AP that 60 Polish skiers had cancelled their March 7-14 booking.

Among the many companies reeling from the virus' damage to the economy was long-ailing airline Alitalia. With tourists scrapping plans to visit Italy just ahead of usually packed Easter and summer seasons, Alitalia is seeking to temporarily lay off 3,000 employees on top of 1,000 already on temporary layoff for months.

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KYW Newsradio's Kim Glovas contributed to this report.