“Bella Roma!” he cried out, his voice echoing off apartment buildings.
It was 6:50 a.m.
Monday in Italy was like the first sunny day after a hurricane. The country, with a mix of anxiety and excitement, crept back to life. People were out of their apartments, sharing stories, taking stock of the damage, trying to figure out what comes next. The basic things — such as espressos, served exclusively to go by gloved baristas — felt sweet and earned.
“It’s a feeling of liberation,” said Cecchi, who returned to work for the first time in nearly 60 days.
It was also an experiment, one playing out across Europe, as well as in certain U.S. states. The decisions these governments and their citizens are making — about what a reopening should look like, and how to balance economic risks with health ones — may influence other nations, further behind on the curve, on how to move forward while the coronavirus remains a threat.
Italy had one of the West’s strictest lockdowns, so as momentous as Monday felt for many people, the country was merely shifting to a phase that puts it in line with nations under shelter-in-place orders. Retail stores, museums and theaters remain closed. Travel remains highly restricted between regions, though limits on local exercise and visits have now been relaxed.
The most significant change Monday came with the restart of factories and construction projects, as more than 4 million people — about a fifth of the Italian labor force — returned to their jobs.
Italy has no plans to reopen its schools until September. But Germany, which has better contained the virus so far, sent hundreds of thousands of students back to class on Monday, in a major and controversial step.
By late morning, Annedore Brüske-Dierker, director of Theodor Heuss School in central Berlin, already appeared frayed.
“What’s going on here? You need to keep your distance!” she yelled at a group of seniors who had gathered in a small study area. “You have to take this seriously,” she said, ordering four of the group of seven to leave.
Students shuffled into the hall, not maintaining the required distance.
“Stand 1.5 meters apart!” she chastised.
“You see the problem,” she explained.
The question hanging over Europe is whether the virus will come racing back as restrictions loosen. With its school reopening, Germany is trying to limit the risk by sending only certain grades back to class, by reducing class sizes, by spacing desks apart. Students are attending in shifts, meaning it takes more hours to teach the same number of kids. Teachers over 60 and those with other vulnerabilities are staying home. The Theodor Heuss School simply doesn’t have the staff levels for everyone to come back with distancing rules maintained, Brüske-Dierker said.
Restarting is also nerve-rattling because of the increased risk it brings.
At a primary school in Prenzlauer Berg, in northeastern Berlin, a mother who had dropped off her sixth-grade son fought back tears as she described the fear that her child would infect the family.
Her husband is undergoing chemotherapy for thymus cancer. But she also needs to work, which has been difficult while her two children have been away from school.
“I can’t work with him at home,” said 35-year-old Katharina, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld, citing privacy concerns.
While children seem to be less severely affected by coronavirus than adults, Germany’s top virologist, Christian Drosten, has warned that they are equally infectious, citing the preliminary results of a study by his team at Berlin’s Charité hospital.
Germany has largely avoided the tighter lockdowns seen elsewhere in Europe. Bakeries and cafes have remained open for takeout throughout. Garden and hardware stores were deemed essential businesses, and there were no restrictions on how long people could enjoy parks and outdoor spaces as long as distancing was maintained.
Nonessential shops, such as clothing stores, began to open late last month, and hairdressers joined them on Monday. But Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the rate of infection will be closely monitored as openings happen, and some scientists argue that school openings are happening unnecessarily soon.
In Italy, which has suffered the deadliest outbreak in Europe, with more than 29,000 reported fatalities, fears about the virus are deeply ingrained. Even as people walked their dogs and shopped for vegetables at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori on Monday, an ambulance pulled up. A medic arrived at an apartment, dressed in a full protective suit.
In Italy and across Europe, officials say they are past the peak of the outbreak’s first wave. The numbers of new cases and new deaths reported each day have been falling. And health systems are able to manage the current load.
But beyond those indicators, Italy faces intense economic pressure to reopen. The coronavirus has triggered what is expected to be the deepest recession among advanced economies.
Rome clothing store owner Fanny Mattera was inside her shop on Monday, sanitizing and cleaning, even though she won’t be permitted to open for another two weeks. She said she had 20,000 euros worth of merchandise and doubted she could sell them at full price.
Several miles from Rome’s center, in a neighborhood of public housing and fascist-era architecture, cafe owner Paolo Soldani, 50, said his area was already in “ruin.” He compared the lockdown to an “economic earthquake.” His four employees were owed a form of government assistance — but they hadn’t received it yet.
“I kept hearing TV stars talking about the need to stay home” during the lockdown, Soldani said. “I wanted to tell them, ‘With your bank account, I’d gladly stay home too.’ ”
For many, the continued restrictions — and the uncertainty about how long they will last — have sparked signs of frustration, with friction growing between Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and regional governments on the pace of reopening.
Restaurants in most parts of the country will have to wait weeks or longer until they can resume table service. In the southern area of Calabria, though, the regional governor said restaurants could restart outdoor table service immediately.
“I have a region without high infection numbers,” the governor, Jole Santelli, said in a radio interview, “and above all I have a poor area.”
Nationally, though, Italy is hemmed in by the scale of the outbreak. The country has 100,000 reported ongoing coronavirus cases. A government scientific panel, studying various reopening scenarios, found that without school closures and continued widespread teleworking, Italian hospitals would again become overwhelmed.
“There is not much room to maneuver on reopenings,” concluded the report, which was shared by the newspaper La Repubblica.
Italy has set guidelines — taking into account the transmission rate of the virus and the regional hospital capacity — that would reactivate lockdowns in emerging hot spots.
The peril is most immediate for northern regions, which were hit hardest by the first wave of the virus and which happen to be the most industrialized areas.
“Most of the 4.5 million people returning to work live in the regions where the epidemic is less under control,” said Nino Cartabellotta, a public health researcher who is president of the Gimbe Foundation.
Morris reported from Berlin. Luisa Beck and William Glucroft in Berlin contributed to this report.