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Tourists are back in Rome, including some with American accents

Tourists take photos in front of Rome’s Trevi Fountain on June 2. (Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)
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ROME — He'd arrived hours earlier on a packed, covid-tested flight from Atlanta to Rome, and now Levi Jackson, 24, was in the ­middle of a city springing back to life. The gleaming Trevi Fountain had crowds spilling down its ­amphitheater-like steps. The city's best restaurants, as well as some of its worst, were fully occupied. Block by block from where Jackson stood, a revived army of selfie-stick sellers and caricature artists were hustling and coaxing, dusting off bits of English and German and French.

Jackson, beginning a 30-day trip to see his stepmother and father, a U.S. military contractor based in northern Italy, had a full itinerary mapped out: Rome, Florence, the Amalfi Coast, Rome again. But his family was starting with the eternal Italy tourist question.

“Where’s the best place for gelato?” his stepmother, Julia Jackson, asked.

In the 64 weeks since Italy went hurtling into its initial coronavirus lockdown, its capital and most-visited city has had moments of subdued, locals-only charm and plenty of stretches of dire stillness. But over a matter of days — in a jarring transformation for Rome’s residents — the city is beginning to approximate its pre-pandemic self: bustling, doors wide open.

Suddenly, there are lines streaming out of the Vatican museum and out of a Venchi gelato shop. (Not the city’s best, any local would tell you.) There are tourist-area cafes — with menus in seven languages — that had been shuttered for months, left for dead, and have suddenly resurrected. There are Bulgarian tour groups entering churches, Germans with backpacks at the Pantheon and just-arrived architecture students from the University of Notre Dame.

“There are people in shorts looking at maps again,” said ­Gillian Longworth McGuire, an American and travel consultant who has lived in Rome for 15 years.

The transformation has come about as European countries begin to open themselves up to leisure travelers. Italy has dropped its quarantine requirement for Americans on “covid-tested” flights, as well as for travelers from the European Union, Britain or Israel who show a negative coronavirus test.

At the same time, the E.U.’s own inoculation campaign has at last allowed countries to loosen restrictions.

E.U. to reopen borders to travelers with accepted vaccines

In Italy, some 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot, a ratio below that of the United States. But the vaccination drive, coupled with warming weather and some general precautions, has been enough to spur a turnaround. The number of people hospitalized in Italy has plummeted more than fourfold since early April. Indoor dining is again allowed. A curfew, in place for seven months, is on the verge of disappearing.

“Italy is ready to welcome back the world,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi had said at a news ­conference in early May, a quote that was then packaged into an Instagram post by the account @visititalyofficial.

Zinny Simpson, 29, an American living in Tuscany, forwarded that post to a friend in Houston, Daniel Fenton, 21.

“Italy’s ready for you homie,” Simpson added in his own words to Fenton.

“Bro I’m calling you tomorrow” to make arrangements, Fenton replied.

Motivated by the idea of an Italy trip, Fenton immediately signed up for a vaccine appointment at Walgreens. On Thursday, he was in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, fully vaccinated, talking about the plate of carbonara he’d had the night before, and an upcoming trip to Sicily.

“I got here as soon as I could,” said Fenton, who had been studying abroad in Arezzo, Italy, until his program was suspended at the onset of the pandemic.

The current crowds in Rome feel noteworthy in the eyes of a city that had gotten accustomed to so few visitors. The crowds dipped so dramatically that Piazza Navona, mid-lockdown, was sprouting grass through the cobblestones.

Europeans emerging from coronavirus lockdowns find a conspicuous absence of Americans

But even as tourism returns, it’s still well shy of the level from before. Passengers at Rome’s ­Fiumicino airport are still down 80 percent from the norm. And people from some parts of the world aren’t here at all — a reminder of the inequities of vaccine access. Many of the tourists in Rome are simply Italians from other cities, newly vaccinated, hoping to see their capital before it is overrun.

“We feel like we’re breaking out of jail” after pandemic lockdown, said Angelo Rizzo, 47, from the Sicilian city of Trapani, as he visited the Vatican with his wife and three of his children.

Many Romans, so dependent on tourism, welcome the beginnings of an uptick. Marco Gallani, 74, who runs a frame shop, said it had been “depressing” to see tourist quarters so empty. “A pandemic should not be the way you take back a city,” Gallani said.

But there was also an upside to the temporary emptiness, particularly in moments when the health situation felt contained. Like never before, Romans had the Forum and the Colosseum to themselves. They developed a bit of bunkered-down neighborly solidarity. They ordered takeout from their favorite restaurants, hoping they could help them survive.

A day at the Colosseum, with custodians who have Roman ruins all to themselves

“Hopefully this summer it’s a happy medium. Busy, but not crushing the way it was before,” said Longworth McGuire, who lives near the Colosseum. She said that some days, before the pandemic, she’d walk to the front door and simply return to her apartment, reluctant to wade into the crowds.

An Italian business association says that as many as 650,000 tourism jobs were lost last year. Some stores remain shuttered. But other places are bouncing back.

One gelateria on a major street had been closed for months, plastered with a sign that it would reopen only when life returned to “normal.” On Thursday, the gate was up, with remodeling work taking place inside.

“We’re reopening Saturday,” the owner said.

Other stores, though open, say business hasn’t yet returned to what it was.

At a cafe near the Vatican — a place selling pre-made sandwiches as well as Catholic figurines — one employee, Jamel Concha, 27, was standing outside, twirling a menu on his finger, trying to lure people to sit down under the outdoor umbrellas.

“You can see on their faces if they are hungry or thirsty,” Concha explained.

Concha said there were times during the pandemic when his job entailed standing at the entrance doing almost nothing. “No one was passing,” he said. “So boring.”

There was foot traffic again now. A 25-person tour group of Italians, who strode right past. A man with a Nikon camera over his shoulder, who showed no interest.

It was nearly lunchtime. Concha was still twirling his menu. The cafe was quiet, other than two Czech tourists and two nuns.

“This is not good enough,” Concha said. “We still need Rome to get busier.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.