The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When being unvaccinated means being locked out of public life

Married cellists Claudio Ronco, right, and Emanuela Vozza are both unvaccinated and unable to perform publicly under Italy's coronavirus rules. (Francesca Volpi for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

OSIGO, Italy — After many rounds of rules targeting the unvaccinated, the chamber musician’s new life is unrecognizable from the old. Claudio Ronco once performed all over Europe, but now he can’t even board a plane. He can’t check into a hotel, eat at restaurant or get a coffee at a bar. Most important, he can’t use the water taxis needed to get around Venice, his home for 30 years — a loss of mobility that recently prompted him to gather up two of his prized cellos, lock up his Venetian apartment and retreat with his wife to a home owned by his in-laws one hour away in the hills.

“Isolation,” Ronco called it, on the fourth day in a row that he hadn’t left the house.

At this complicated stage of the pandemic, the lives of unvaccinated people are in major flux, at the mercy of decisions made everywhere from courts to workplaces. But their lives are changing most dramatically in a handful of countries in Western Europe, including Italy, where governments are systematically reducing their liberties, while beginning to return the rest of society to a state of normalcy. And while regular testing, until recently, was permitted as an alternative to vaccination, even that option has now been largely removed as countries harden their mandates. For people like Ronco, the choice is to get inoculated or face exclusion.

Ronco, 66, knows some people who have relented, including a fellow musician with three kids and a mortgage. He knows others who are scrambling for hard-to-get medical exemptions. But Ronco — an Orthodox Jew and a specialist in 18th-century music who tends to distrust the trends of the masses — figures this is an instance when he can try to withstand the mounting pressure. His savings are thinning, but not gone. His children are grown. His wife, Emanuela Vozza, a fellow cellist, also unvaccinated, feels as he does. So day after day, his resistance has continued: A musician who once played at Milan’s famed La Scala has been instead working alongside Vozza, editing recordings they’ve made in their countryside living room, unable for the foreseeable future to perform for a crowd.

“Even in a public square, it would be impossible,” he said, because he and the audience would still need the Green Pass, the European digital vaccination card.

He gestured at the forest beyond his in-laws’ home. He has found himself in recent days dreaming of putting on a concert in a clearing in the woods.

“I could put out a call on Facebook and hope nobody comes to break it up,” Ronco said.

Some of the unvaccinated people Ronco knows keep a low profile. Ronco understands why: Their decisions have been criticized vehemently by politicians, by virologists, even by Pope Francis. Days ago, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the unvaccinated are responsible for “most of the problems we have today,” disproportionately occupying intensive care beds.

Pope Francis calls anti-vaccine sentiment ‘baseless’ in his annual state-of-the-world speech

“We’re flat-earthers,” Ronco said, describing the view of people like himself that has taken hold. “With total disrespect for the system and humanity itself.”

But Ronco says leaders are overlooking how their moves are cleaving society into two groups, one accepted and one not. As Italy, over months, built up its Green Pass rules — first for indoor dining, then for workplaces, then for public transit and much more — Ronco turned his Facebook page into a mix of Torah passages, cello movements and fiery claims about government overreach. He re-shared the testimony of various vaccine skeptics and in the process lost roughly 1,500 of his 5,000 followers, only to find new friend requests pouring in — presumably from people who were more like-minded.

Most of that churn didn’t matter to him. But one consequence struck a painful chord. He’d been close friends with an expert Italian stringmaker — “we were like brothers,” Ronco said. When Ronco visited the string factory several months ago, his friend had enforced masking and distancing and temperature checks. But the visit, Ronco felt, had been warm.

Vaccine mandates are spreading. Italy shows what to expect.

Then, a few days ago, the stringmaker unfriended Ronco on social media.

To Ronco, it was one more form of isolation setting in.

“This is somebody I’ve known for 30 years,” he said quietly. “There is no bridge from one side to the other.”

Green Pass is seen as oppressive to some, freeing for others

More than an hour away, in Ronco’s old Venetian neighborhood, the little local bars were filled with people drinking cheap cocktails and snacking on cicchetti — all after showing the Green Pass. This is the city where Ronco raised two children from an earlier marriage. It is the city that came to feel like home, far more than even Turin, where he grew up. But on this evening, Ronco’s apartment was dark, and the lights were coming instead from a 16th-century rowhouse belonging to his neighbor, Claudio Ambrosini, vaccinated three times.

Ambrosini, a composer of contemporary music, said he considers Ronco a “courageous” musician, creative and willing to buck trends. In past years, Ronco played the cello at Ambrosini’s dinner parties. But when they last saw one another, on the street in Venice, Ambrosini asked Ronco whether he’d finally gotten vaccinated — and was disappointed with the response. Ambrosini told Ronco he was making the wrong choice.

For Ambrosini, 73, the decision about vaccination is clear-cut. He spent the pandemic’s first year scared of getting severely sick, while planning for concerts only to see them canceled. Vaccination brought personal relief. But he also sees getting inoculated as part of the social contract. He says the new Green Pass rules are benevolent, not dystopian. The rules have helped to convince some holdouts, and are among the factors in Italy’s vaccination rate being one of the highest in Europe.

Ambrosini is required to present his Green Pass to take the four-hour train ride to Rome for concerts. He uses the pass three times a week to enter an indoor swimming pool. He doesn’t yet feel completely secure; he still wears a double mask. But the Green Pass has made his life in Venice tenable.

Fear, distress, relief. The many emotions of the pandemic can be found in Italy’s pharmacy testing lines.

In his neighborhood, the rosy brick buildings have endured for centuries, and at night, the reflections of those buildings ripple in the water, ever changing. Ambrosini said the contrasts of the environment — hard and soft, permanent and fleeting — have seeped into his music. He said he considers Venice the ideal city for a musician.

The sun was setting, and Ambrosini craned his neck for a look outside, toward the canal and a nearby wooden bridge.

“Claudio’s apartment is just over that way,” the composer said. “You can practically see it from here.”

Why remain unvaccinated?

Ronco is an irrepressible storyteller, folding history and religion into even the most direct questions. Asked what year his cello was built, he first answered succinctly: “1745.” But the story was only beginning. He described the heyday of string instrument craftsmanship in 18th-century Italy. He described how the instrument made its way from one country and the next, until it was apprehended by Nazi soldiers and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Jewish prisoners were forced to perform. He described how it was repaired after wartime damage and how, even after he obtained it, he briefly felt uncertain about conjuring the sounds of a haunted place.

When he finished his account, he took out his bow. Soon, in the empty living room, Ronco’s right arm was dancing, and rosin dust floated through the sunlight.

So began the fifth consecutive day in which he didn’t leave the house.

With coronavirus variants, the world is learning the Greek alphabet, one grim letter at a time

Faced with the direct question of why he is unvaccinated, Ronco again has stories — many of them. Over hours, he talked about potential medical consequences of the jab and alternative methods for boosting the immune system. He touted Vladimir Zelenko, a New York doctor tending to a Hasidic Jewish community, who became world famous for devising an experimental treatment that included hydroxychloroquine. He raged about the new divisions in society and even invoked the Nazi-era Aryan passport document.

But Ronco also made it clear that his resistance comes naturally. It fits with the story he’s set for his own life: an unconventional performer.

As a teenager, he paused his studies at Turin’s elite music conservatory, moved to India and spent several years living with a teacher who taught him the sitar and non-Western music. He applied his against-the-grain philosophies not just in music, but in health. After a pair of 2007 heart attacks, he said, doctors recommended a daily regimen of 19 pills that he’d need to take for the rest of his life. But Ronco said he “rebelled” and stopped with the pills cold turkey, even fearful that the decision might kill him. Instead, his body regained its equilibrium.

“They wanted me to be on a bench for the rest of my life feeding pigeons,” Ronco said. “I wasn’t ready for that.”

Ronco said he is committed to his resistance, and it has consumed enough of his identity that it’s almost impossible to imagine reversing course. He said that even if he got infected — the lone scenario that would allow an unvaccinated person to get a Green Pass — he wouldn’t use the pass.

“It can’t go on like this,” Ronco said after he finished playing.

“[The government] is pushing so hard on us,” Vozza said, joining in. “We committed no crime. But we are not free — not completely free.”

The constraints are about to get even tighter. In coming weeks, Italy will also mandate its Green Pass at banks, stores and the post office, where Ronco and Vozza sometimes send their CDs to fans. (In those places — unlike restaurants, bars and transit — Italy will still accept a negative test.) Starting in mid-February, Italy will also impose a 100-euro fine on anybody older than 50 who isn’t vaccinated. Ronco said he’ll pay.

There’s a chance, Ronco surmised, that the Italian coronavirus rules are fleeting: that the virus becomes accepted as endemic and the Green Pass rules are reeled back in. But he isn’t sure. The virus keeps changing. The state of emergency keeps getting extended. He and his wife could be holed up for months, or years. Recently, Ronco started thinking about the possibility of moving elsewhere — to a country that didn’t have rules for the unvaccinated.

It was just a down-the-road possibility, Ronco said.

But if it happened, he could already picture the first leg: They’d have to leave Italy by car.