“Compared to Italy,” she said, “everything else pales in comparison.”
But then, as her countdown clock neared three weeks, and every day seemed to bring more bad coronavirus news, Kaefring, 42, of Klamath Falls, Ore., found herself imagining far different scenarios. What if she got sick in a foreign country with a teenager? What if the trip went fine but she had to quarantine herself upon return? And what if she was actually carrying the coronavirus? She has diabetes. She works in a hospital. She could not be “cavalier.”
“I think Italy is canceled,” she finally told her son after days of deliberation, which included Googling a live cam of Venice’s main piazza and seeing crowds thin day after day to an eerie trickle.
Italy has not shut down to visitors, and the spread of the virus has been limited largely to two northern regions. But as the country’s coronavirus death toll passed 100 on Wednesday, the government announced schools would close until mid-March. That follows warnings from the U.S. State Department that Americans should reconsider travel to Italy.
So the virus has imposed sudden new limits on how world travelers can enjoy themselves and where they can dream of going.
For now: probably not Italy.
Normally a country full of vacationers and honeymooners, foreign students and Catholic pilgrims, Italy has become dramatically quieter — and emptier. Even regions nearly untouched by the virus, such as Umbria, have seen a 70 percent hotel cancellation rate. Angelo Carotenuto, founder of tour operator LivItaly, said he thought Italy could lose 50 percent of its visitors for the year — more than 30 million people.
That includes Americans organizing destination weddings in Venice, Germans planning their spring breaks along the Calabrian coast and people like Kaefring, who has an antique map of Rome framed in her house, and who says it is only in Italy where her soul feels quite so good.
“I could cry,” she said when her countdown clock said 17 days, 10 minutes to a trip that would not happen. “When you go to London, there are cool things. But then you’re confronted with a skyscraper. When you’re in Italy, there is not a single thing that takes you out of that fairy tale.”
What dissuades travelers is not necessarily the virus itself, but all the complications that come with traveling in a time of uncertainty. Airlines have scrapped some routes to Italy. A handful of countries have closed their borders to people who have recently been in Italy, and others have imposed mandatory 14-day quarantines.
The United States has pledged higher screening for people coming back from Italy. The State Department last week gave the country’s two largest northern regions the same advisory as it issued to Yemen and South Sudan.
“A lot of it is the fear of the unknown,” said Abbie Synan, 37, of Pittsburgh, a full-time traveler and writer. “I’ve not really seen something that has gotten people so nervous since maybe 9/11.”
Synan was spending time on the Sardinian coast as the outbreak erupted in Italy, with plans to make her way slowly to Sicily for a conference. Instead, she decided to retreat and take short flights through Spain and toward Paris, staying away from any hot spots, hoping to make it back home without interruptions before her sister gave birth.
Many Italians, as well as foreigners living abroad, have stressed on social media that the most of nation is safe, and have tried to portray a country that is calm and managing still to enjoy its aperitivi. For those who still make it to the country, they find an Italy that is more Italian than ever, stripped of the Disneyland crowds in Venice and central Rome. Some in the tourism business make the argument that Italy is potentially safer than other European countries, because its testing for the virus has been so comprehensive, and the scale of the outbreak is better understood.
“When something like this happens, psychosis goes around,” said Carotenuto, the Rome-based tour group owner, who said he has lost $300,000 in seven days, mainly because his company, like many other tour operators, guarantees refunds. This week, he held an emergency meeting with his 14 employees and told them nine would have to start working part time. He and his wife were eliminating their incomes.
“I’ve been comparing it with my wife,” Carotenuto said. “This is much worse than the recession. In my business, it feels like the world war.”
Carotenuto said he was getting cancellation messages at all hours of the day — by phone, by text, by email — and yet many of the messages talked not about fear, but about disappointment. Some customers said they had been saving for the trip for months. Some said they had been prevented from going to Italy by their companies. Some said they were angry at restrictions imposed by their governments.
In other cases, people who were already in Italy ended up going home early. Nicholas Kohler, 21, a college junior, was studying abroad in Florence, staying with a local woman in her 70s who happened to be a great cook. He was focusing on art history, and, in this case, that meant walking into Palazzo Vecchio, or the Uffizi Gallery.
But last week, Syracuse University decided to suspend his academic program in Florence. The school said it was making the decision for the safety of its students and to reduce the risk that they would be unable to leave Italy because of new restrictions.
Kohler headed home to Los Angeles and tried to weigh his options. He was a University of Colorado at Boulder student, but because he had registered with the Syracuse program for the semester, the coronavirus upheaval left him with two choices. Either he could take his Syracuse classes online before returning to Boulder in the fall. Or, he could spend the rest of his semester in Upstate New York.
Either way, he said, “it’s not Florence.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.