"We have applied a regime of restrictive measures," Conte said. "We are facing an emergency, a national emergency."
The measures at least temporarily will transform the nation, locking off much of the northern part of the country — with movement restricted by authorities and approved only for emergencies and urgent work and health matters.
The changes would cut off the daily high-speed rail connections between Milan and Rome, bring an absolute halt to tourism, and essentially bring Italy's economic heartland to a standstill, while signaling that Western democratic nations are willing to drastically restrict freedoms as they contend with major disease outbreaks.
Conte said the restriction on freedom of movement was not absolute, but he said the country was facing a critical moment in its two-week battle to contain the largest coronavirus outbreak in Europe. Conte said the goals were specifically to limit the virus’s spread and prevent hospitals, teetering on the brink of a public health crisis, from becoming overloaded.
The restrictions — which will remain in place at least until April 3 — apply to the entire region of Lombardy, home to Milan, and 14 northern provinces, including Venice.
Italy in recent days has seen the virus only accelerate, with the number of active cases in the country soaring beyond 5,000 — more than half of them in the Lombardy region. On Saturday alone, the country confirmed more than 1,000 new cases nationwide, and the head of Italy’s governing center-left party, Nicola Zingaretti, announced that he had contracted the virus and was in isolation at home.
In the two weeks immediately after the coronavirus crisis erupted in Italy, 11 small towns were put under lockdown — restrictions that stopped the movement of 50,000 people. The new measures do away with those zones entirely, placing similar restrictions on nearly a quarter of the country.
“Now it is a much wider area,” Conte said.
Schools will also remain closed during that time, and public events will be halted, including funerals. Measures like the closure of museums and theaters will be extended nationwide.
But there are questions about how the measures, particularly on movement, will be enforced — and whether a country that relishes its fun-loving freedoms will approach anything near a China-style lockdown.
The new government decree doesn’t put a full stop to public life and allows restaurants and bars to continue to operate so long as customers remain one meter apart from one another.
Late Saturday, after a draft of the government’s proposal had been floated in the media, regional and local leaders in the north responded with concern or outrage, worried that the restrictions were unclear. Attilio Fontana, the governor of the Lombardy region, called the government’s plan “a mess.”
Italy will have three separate sealed off-zones — the largest of those being the region surrounding Milan. Another so-called red zone, to the east, would include Venice, along the Adriatic Sea. The last zone would be along the same seaboard farther to the south; inside that zone, there would be an island of territory without the same prohibitions — the tiny nation of San Marino.
The restrictions are also sure to deal a massive economic blow. Even before the coronavirus emergency broke out, Italy had the European Union’s weakest economy — one that was on the brink of its fourth recession since 2008. In sealing off its financial capital of Milan and its tourist emblem of Venice, the country is foregoing any sense of normalcy in the short term in the hopes that it can do what China has managed: slow the growth of new cases.
Lombardy and Veneto, the largest regions of the north, account for about 30 percent of Italy’s employment and 40 percent of its exports.