Italy quarantines north in drastic bid to slow virus spread

A woman wears a mask as she stands on an escalator inside Central train station, in Milan, Italy, Sunday, March 8, 2020. Italy announced a sweeping quarantine early Sunday for its northern regions, igniting travel chaos as it restricted the movements of a quarter of its population in a bid to halt the new coronavirus' relentless march across Europe.
Image Credit: Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP

ROME - Italy took a page from China’s playbook Sunday, locking down around 16 million people — more than a quarter of its population — for nearly a month to halt the relentless march of the new coronavirus across Europe.

Weddings, museums, movie theatres shopping malls, and even restaurants are all hit by the new restrictions, which focus on a swath of northern Italy but are disrupting daily life around the country. After mass testing uncovered more than 7,300 infections, Italy now has registered more cases of the virus than any country but China, where it's now on the retreat.

From Venice to Milan, confusion reigned as residents and tourists tried to figure out when and how the new measures were coming into effect. Travelers crammed aboard standing-room only trains, tucking their faces into scarves and sharing sanitizing gel.

Around the globe, more and more events were cancelled or hidden behind closed doors, from the pope’s Sunday service to a Formula One car race in Bahrain and a sumo competition in Japan. Questions grew about whether to maintain U.S. presidential campaign rallies and other potentially “super-spreading” gatherings, as the virus stretches into new states.

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 neighbouring Veneto region. The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.

The fate of foreign visitors stuck in Italy's new quarantine zones is still unclear.

The pope, who has been ill, held his Sunday blessing by video instead of in person, even though he wasn't 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’re still effectively stuck.

The World Health Organization has said China’s move helped the rest of the world prepare for the virus to arrive, 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 nearly 3,800 deaths. New infections in China have levelled off dramatically, however, and most of those infected, in China and globally, have already recovered.

Infections mounted higher Sunday in other epicenters -- South Korea, Iran and especially Italy. And with a nose-dive in tourist traffic and major disruptions to supply chains worldwide, stocks struggled Sunday as 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 which was already financially ailing before the virus, 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. Italy is up to 7,375 cases as of Saturday, and the death toll in the country rose to 366.

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.

In a reversal of the stereotypical north-south tensions in Italy, the governor of Puglia urged northerners to stay away and not bring virus infections down south.

“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,’’ Codazzi said. He still doesn't know whether his factory will be open Monday.

Governments across Europe tightened their rules. The prime minister of Portugal is self-isolating. 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 virus outbreak has left the cruise ship industry 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 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 other countries. The ship had a cluster of almost 20 infections during an earlier voyage that has led to one death.

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.

The U.S. death toll from the virus climbed to 19, with most victims in Washington state. Infections rose to over 430, including the first case in the nation’s capital.

Even as the virus spreads, dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine.

As of Saturday, nearly 90,000 cases have been reported in Asia; more than 10,000 in Europe; about 7,000 in the Mideast; around 450 in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and fewer than 50 cases reported so far in Africa. More than 60,000 people have recovered worldwide.

China on Sunday reported 44 new cases over the past 24 hours, the lowest level since it began publishing nationwide figures on Jan 20, and 27 new fatalities. Italy is now the No. 2 epicenter, surpassing South Korea, whose total is now 7,313, with 50 deaths overall.

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Angela Charlton reported from Paris. Nicole Winfield and Trish Thomas in Rome, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Chris Blake in Bangkok, 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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