Expat Diary: What is Life Like in Italy During Lockdown?

Valerie Schneider, IL Italy Correspondent

Update: Moving into Phase 2

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addressed the nation on April 26 to broadcast the next step in the COVID-19 crisis. Italy is moving very cautiously and incrementally towards re-opening, with Phase 2 comes a bit more freedom but there are still many restrictions. And it comes with the caveat that if the number of cases starts to rise again, things will revert back to lockdown. Here are the updates that will take place from May 4 to May 18.

Now, we can go for walks around our town. Previously we could only walk within 200 meters of our homes, except for going to the shops for food, for the pharmacy or doctor. We can go for longer walks, but only with one person and maintain safe distances (two meters). Masks are still to be worn in public places that are enclosed, for shopping, at the pharmacy, etc. or outdoors while waiting to enter a store/post office where many people are waiting. Any type of groups or gatherings are still not permitted.

People can move around within their own region to visit immediate family members, but no parties, reunions or gatherings. You can’t go to friends’ homes to hang out, and are supposed to wear masks while visiting. Folks can’t go to their second homes, even if they are in the same region.

No one is allowed to leave their region except for proven necessity—work, medical care, or emergencies. A form has to be presented at checkpoints and the authorities do check the validity of the statements. If they’re not truly of the valid reasons, they will receive a stiff fine.

Parks will be reopened if they can maintain safety distances. If not, or if the city finds too many people gathering, the parks will be closed. Playgrounds remain closed.

Take-out food is allowed but only if safe distances can be ensured, and food must be taken home to be eaten; no eating on the street and restaurants are still closed otherwise.

Funerals can be held with a maximum of 15 people at the cemetery; there are no church services for funeral Mass yet.

Public transit will be running on limited schedules and with limits on the number of people allowed in each bus/tram/subway car.

Manufacturing activities will restart; companies have worked with the government and labor unions to make sure safe distances, disinfection procedures, and temperature testing can be observed.

On June 1 bars and beauty salons may be allowed to reopen but that will hinge on how things go during Phase 1.

Things will go slowly and with a great deal of monitoring and caution; nobody wants this to get out of hand again.

Expat Diary

Italy has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as everyone has seen on the news. It arrived silently and took the country by surprise—and by storm. The information on the virus was still scarce and leaders took a wait-and-see approach at first, convinced the few cases would be contained. As the real impact and consequences started to emerge, they struggled to grapple with the best course and how to deal with a contagion they didn’t know much about while keeping the country functioning. It roared out of control, and without having the benefit of foresight, they plunged forward to widespread testing, both to understand and document the virus and to try to contain it. Measures in the north, where the virus began spreading very quickly, included early quarantine steps with partial shut-downs, before going into more stringent lock-down measures.

On March 11, the entire country was placed under the quarantine orders that included closing all non-essential businesses, restricting movement between towns, and issuing a stay at home order. Things have changed frequently and quickly to enact stricter measures in attempts to get the spread under control. The virus trickled down to the south, and the number of cases continues to rise. The situation in northern Italy is nothing short of heartbreaking. The quarantine measures are starting to show some glimmers of hope that the curve will even out.

What is Daily Life Like in Italy?

Life is quiet here, at least where my husband, Bryan, and I are in the south. Italy has stringent quarantine measures in place so we are not allowed to leave our town except for very specific reasons (work and medical treatment). Most businesses are closed except those providing essential services—meaning food stores, pharmacies, and such. We are very grateful to be in a small town for many reasons. We have all the services we need right here. We can walk to the stores and obtain everything in a short outing. Only one member of each household at a time is supposed to go out for these necessities. Because it is a small town, there are no long lines to enter. At the tiny produce shop, I have to wait outside while another customer is served, then I can enter. It is orderly and when others are waiting outside, everyone maintains the proper distance. We can go for short walks and because there are fewer people here we rarely see anyone anyone on the street. In the cities, things are much more restrictive because of the population density, and there are lines at the stores.

The pharmacy is open, the doctor is in town with his usual schedule (though you are supposed to call instead of going in person), and the post office is open but only for absolutely necessary and urgent transactions. (The Poste Italiane is also Italy’s largest banking institution.) Postal delivery has been drastically reduced but couriers arrive to deliver packages. City hall has certain hours but only for urgent needs, though being a small town our mayor has been posting information online and is available by phone. Church services are being live-streamed.

How are you Passing the Time?

I am keeping busy with writing projects and am currently updating the Escape to Italy book for International Living. Bryan is using online databases to continue genealogy research projects. Last week was sunny so we had lunch on the terrace every day. Yesterday it snowed and today is raining, so no outdoors time, but staying productive and doing exercises indoors. I love to cook so am taking more time to do that and try new recipes. We are both readers and have our Kindles backlogged with books. Bryan is taking time to improve his Italian, as it doesn’t come as naturally to him. I have been watching videos to improve my tarantella skills; I’ll be dancing like a local at the next festa!  We both spend a good deal of time checking in with friends and talking to family. Thank God for the modern apps and technology to stay close while being far away. (Which, by the way, is a saying here through this crisis: Distanti ma uniti (distant but united).

Is Public Transportation Still Running?

Public transit is still running on but on limited schedules. Nobody is supposed to leave their own town or city except for very specific purposes, and they have to compile a form to give to the authorities that stop them. Their declarations are verified, and if found to be false they are fined and/or could be jailed. Shopping and pharmacy runs are to be made in your closest district, so you shouldn’t be getting a bus to go to another part of town. Friends who live in cities tell me that the buses are empty.

Is Italy Prepared for Coronavirus?

Italy was not prepared, but didn’t have the advantage of foresight to enact preparedness measures. They were working in the dark with limited information and experience to go by. The examples of what has worked (and what hasn’t) are being used by other countries further down the coronavirus road (or should be). Italy didn’t have the gift of time before being thrust in to the crisis.

How are you Preparing for the Future?

Honestly, we are living each day at a time, keeping our work going as best we can and waiting for the worst to be over. It will pass. And then we’ll be out in the piazza dancing with our friends. Until then, we obey the regulations, stay home (and safe), keep a daily routine, and plan our future getaways, when all the colors will be more vibrant and the Mediterranean sea water all the sweeter. We have savings to see us through, enough pasta and wine and other goods for a couple of weeks at a time, and are grateful for all we do have.

How is Your Community Coming Together?

Because we live in a small town, there is a strong sense of community. In the beginning of the national lockdown, some people would go out on their balconies to sing or play music to boost morale. We are on the edge of the village so we didn’t see anyone but hearing it for those five or 10 minutes a day made the distance feel less isolating. Now, the children of the town are all making candles to put in their windows, using colored salt in rainbow colors with the words “andrà tutto bene” (everything will be alright), which has become a sort of national mantra. They’re posting them on social media and it’s heartwarming to see. Some of the women in town are sewing protective facemasks for pharmacists and other first-line service providers. Our mayor keeps people informed of official changes, and the town priest sends out WhatsApp messages of encouragement. There are folks taking food and medicine to the elderly. Friends wave from balconies or exchange text messages and phone calls to keep in touch. There is a strong feeling of collaboration, of staying home to help this pass sooner. Last Sunday every family in town prepared handmade cavatelli pasta for lunch, another way to feel connected (remember, distanti ma uniti).

How are you Communicating?

We primarily use WhatsApp to keep in touch with friends and family here and in the U.S., along with Facebook and Instagram. We have been touched by how many people have written to express concern for us, to reach out, to send us something to make us laugh; even from folks we barely know, so it’s been truly heartwarming and appreciated. I talk to my sister nearly every day, and have various family groups and friends groups set up on WhatsApp so we can all check in and stay connected, and get some much-needed levity. I have never received so many funny memes or jokes in such a short period of time!

Can you go to the Store?

We can walk to the shops in our village, so we still get wonderful fresh bread from our bakery (the aroma wafts down to our house and is irresistible), to the supermarket and the fresh produce store. We have everything we need, and go only once every nine days or so to limit contact and abide by the quarantine rules. We go to the bakery every three days for fresh bread and maybe a piece of focaccia pizza, too. The pharmacy is open, though we hope we won’t need its products.

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Valerie Fortney Schneider returned to her roots in the southern Italy region of Basilicata where she is a freelance writer, professional genealogist, and cappuccino addict. Valerie and her husband, Bryan, moved to a hilltop hamlet to enjoy the Italian dolce vita. When not tapping away at her keyboard, she can be found participating in grape harvests, or shooting the breeze with her fellow paesani (villagers). Click here to read more articles from Valerie.


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