The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Italy begins enforcing one of the world’s strictest workplace vaccine mandates, risking blowback

Coronavirus health passes became mandatory for all workers in Italy on Oct. 15, despite some scattered protests across the country. (Video: Reuters)

A previous version of this story quoted Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi as commenting Friday on the new Green Pass policy. He was instead referring to unrelated workplace security measures. The article has been corrected.

ROME — Italy pushed into new territory for a Western democracy on Friday, enforcing a stringent workplace vaccination rule that was dramatically reshaping society even as the morning shift began. Everywhere from offices to factories, workers faced a new requirement for entering and earning a paycheck: They had to first flash the QR code of a government-issued health pass.

"It's something surreal," said Luca Girotto, 47, a vaccinated machinist who had the pass and was able to work.

"A social experiment," said Umberto Peron, 59, an unvaccinated road maintenance worker who lacked the pass and was forced to stay home.

While Italy's government drew up the new measures in the name of safety, the mandates are also beginning to separate society into different tiers of freedom — in a way that might have seemed far-fetched a year ago. The new society is one in which the vaccinated reprise their lives and the unvaccinated face a choice: Either they get immunized, or they risk losing their incomes — along with the ability to dine indoors, attend a concert, see a movie or board a high-speed train.

Italy makes health pass mandatory for many leisure activities, in bid to pressure the unvaccinated

As part of the policy, workers without a Green Pass can be suspended without pay. While a Green Pass can also be obtained with a negative coronavirus test, workers who go that route would need to be retested every 48 hours — a daunting impracticality. Some workers described encountering overwhelmed pharmacies, given the surging demand for swabs, but the Italian government believes the system can cope. Friday, the country conducted 500,000 tests — the most at any point of the pandemic.

Peron said he’d need to spend 200 euros monthly — three days’ worth of income — just to continually renew his pass.

It is far from clear what kind of new social norms will emerge by the end of the pandemic. Even Italy’s policy is only on the books through the end of the year — though it could be extended.

But over the past year and a half, Italy — hit by several deadly, economy-halting waves of the virus — has regularly rolled out measures that initially felt daring but then drew imitators.

Italy was the first Western democracy to enforce a full-on lockdown. It was one of the first nations to make vaccination mandatory for health-care workers. This summer, the government followed France in requiring a Green Pass as an entry ticket for many basic leisure activities.

Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, has even suggested the possibility of a first-in-the-Western-world universal vaccine mandate, a move that would go beyond the layers of rules now in effect.

In the United States, the Biden administration has introduced a vaccine mandate for government workers and pushed for private companies to make vaccination mandatory, requiring all businesses with more than 100 employees to insist their workers get immunized or face weekly testing. In the face of the virus’s enduring toll in the United States, President Biden has said the refusal of the unvaccinated has “cost all of us.”

Italy has a fairly high vaccination rate — 80 percent of the eligible population is now fully immunized. And that rate, along with near-universal indoor mask-wearing, has helped avoid a fierce delta variant wave here.

But now, as in other rich countries well-stocked with vaccines, Italy is in a new phase of trying to understand what it means to live with the virus — and what level of control society might be willing to accept.

“The day of truth,” the Italian newspaper La Repubblica declared on its Friday front page, reflecting widespread uncertainty about how the policy would play out.

In interviews over the past week, employers and union leaders said the policy is dividing workers. They expected increased absences to complicate shift schedules and production. Some companies are curbing vacations for the weeks ahead, suddenly uncertain about how many workers will show up.

The Teneo research company estimates that somewhere between 2.2 million and 2.5 million of Italy’s 23 million workers are unvaccinated. It initially said that in several sectors, including at ports, the unvaccinated rate nears 40 percent — a figure the Teneo later suggested might be too high. Agriculture could also face disruptions, because of the high number of foreign citizens and undocumented workers.

Progress in convincing the holdouts in Italy has been slow. The bump in new first doses has been modest since the workplace policy was decided last month. The government estimates that the policy motivated about 600,000 people who otherwise would have remained unvaccinated to get their doses.

Meantime, many Italians have been surprised by the scale of the resistance. Last weekend, about 10,000 people protested in Piazza del Popolo, and then a smaller group — including members of the extreme-right group Forza Nuova — stormed the headquarters of a major union, after being pushed away from approaching the prime minister’s office.

Police tried to constrain the most violent protesters with tear gas and water cannons, and the scene was volatile enough that security officials shepherded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was in Rome at the time, out of a church where she had been attending Mass.

On Friday, the disruptions were smaller. Protests were held in many Italian cities but did not lead to chaos. Workers in the Italian port of Trieste held a strike, but the port continued to operate. In a Telegram group used by those who oppose the Green Pass mandate, a video showed one sign reading, “No Green Pass, No Discrimination,” while dockworkers chanted, “People like us never give up.”

Friday afternoon, Draghi said he was satisfied with the new Green Pass measure.

In many workplaces, the new rite drew barely any attention. Marco Galassetti, who owns a tire shop near Rome, said all eight of his employees are vaccinated; by 8 a.m., all eight of their QR codes had been scanned.

“It’s not creating any problem for us,” Galassetti said.

But Peron — who said he was suspicious of coronavirus vaccination and did not trust the mainstream media’s information — said he didn’t know how long he could continue to string together swab tests. Some days he might need to skip part of his workday just to get swabbed. He worried about losing money and said an “ultra-controlled society” was taking shape.

“Clearly, they are trying to make life tough for people who made this legitimate choice,” Peron said.

Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, said Italy was probably willing to go further than other countries because of its early experience with the virus — which included devastating waves in spring 2020 and throughout last winter.

“Freedom is something very important in a democracy,” Burioni said. “But the limit of freedom is when you damage other people. And we know for sure that vaccinated people are less infectious, and a vaccinated community will be a lot more resistant to infections.”

Burioni said he now flashes his Green Pass when teaching third-year medical students — something he has resumed doing in-person. His students need the Green Pass, as well.

“Everything is going back to normal with the Green Pass,” he said. “Today, I used it when I had lunch.”

Europe has caught up to the U.S. on coronavirus vaccinations — and is deploying near-mandates to get further

Biden doubles down on vaccine requirements during Chicago visit as results of mandates begin to show

How vaccine-skeptic France and Germany came to support near-mandates

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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