“We all must give something up for the sake of Italy,” said Conte, adding that the country’s health system was at risk.
Entering last weekend, Italy had imposed relatively minor restrictions on movement — quarantining 11 small towns near the epicenter of the outbreak with a total population of 50,000. The Italian government had also closed schools nationally. Then, early Sunday, Italy took its first drastic move against the virus, with Conte announcing a plan to lock down areas around the virus’s epicenter in the north, with travel restrictions applying to 16 million people.
But with the latest moves, which will take effect Tuesday and remain in place until at least April 3, Italy is going far further, upending the last vestiges of normalcy, ensuring a bruising recession and testing the limits of what a democracy can do during peacetime.
Italy’s hope is to cut off its citizens, no matter where they live, from most kinds of travel, including abroad and from one region in the country to another. Italians will be permitted to travel only for essential work, health reasons or other emergencies.
There were immediate questions about how stringently measures would be enforced, and over the last day in the north — where similar measures were already in place — people could still board planes and trains provided they had a signed declaration. Police and other law enforcement officials were checking passengers, and those without authorization to travel risked fines and prison time.
But Italians have begun to accept the steps that authorities and experts have urged: reducing their social lives and cutting out all but their essential tasks. Though the appreciation of the virus’s gravity was slow to arrive, many Italians now feel they are facing their greatest crisis since World War II, and that weeks or months of social and economic disruption are necessary to reduce the disease’s toll.
In recent days, the number of people falling ill has climbed rapidly, with active cases reaching nearly 8,000. In less than three weeks, 463 people have died. Italy has experienced a wider spread than any country except China.
“The entire country is at risk,” said Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, who called the government’s new measures necessary. “The entire country can resist only if the virus can slow down. If it doesn’t, our health system could collapse.”
As part of the new steps, schools nationwide will be shuttered through at least April 3, and nearly all public events, from soccer matches to funerals, will halt. Restaurants will be mandated to close by 6 p.m., mirroring restrictions already in place in the north.
“I’m about to take a measure that we can summarize with ‘I’m staying home,’ ” Conte said in introducing the changes. “Our habits need to change. They need to change now.”
Italy’s decision followed a day of global financial hemorrhaging, with stock indexes on Wall Street experiencing their worst drop in more than a decade, as traders tried to come to grips with how the virus will disrupt societies.
In Italy, the economic slowdown will be profound. The damage will be measured not just with supply chain interruptions and lost tourism, but with business closures, spiking unemployment, defaulted loans and the likelihood of major government bailouts. Even before the virus’s arrival, Italy was poised for a recession, and its economy had scarcely grown in 20 years.
Italy is the first country outside Asia to deal with a substantial coronavirus outbreak, but other countries — including Germany and the United States — also have registered a growing number of cases. Italy has become something of a laboratory for how a country can fight the virus and how all normal routine can collapse in a matter of weeks.
Eleven days ago, Italy had roughly 600 cases — same as the United States has now. Germany, France and Spain have all reported more than 1,000 cases.
“The contagion’s gait in other [European] countries is similar to Italy’s from a few days ago,” said Ferruccio de Bortoli, the former editor in chief of the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “I think there should be a general alarm, an European awareness of facing an invisible enemy for which of course no treatment or vaccine exists as of yet.”
Some virologists have said that, until a vaccine is created, the virus’s spread can only be slowed through social isolation — by halting the daily patterns of seeing friends and taking trips. Though it is unclear why Italy so rapidly expanded its restriction zone, early data from the initial, small towns that Italy locked down was promising, showing that the measures did slow the virus’s spread.
China, where the virus first erupted, succeeded in decelerating the virus on a far greater magnitude, after imposing rigid controls on 60 million people in Hubei province.
In Italy, the greatest resistance to controls has emerged in the form of prison riots. Protests about restrictions on visitors have led to at least one reported instance in which 20 inmates managed to escape. The restrictions — chiefly the suspension of visiting hours and drastically reduced time out of cells — were put in place as a way to reduce the danger of the virus spreading through Italy’s overcrowded prison system.
Those restrictions were the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in places with already-high tensions, said Gennarino De Fazio, a union leader for prison guards.