Restrictions imposed to control the virus — and public panic — have transformed Italy’s commercial and financial capital in a way some Milanese fear will result in a deep and lasting economic blow.
Trams rattle by half-empty. Office buildings are vacant. Top-flight soccer matches are played in empty stadiums behind closed doors.
Walking through areas normally buzzing with nightlife, “it’s like a bomb exploded,” said Carlina Cretella, whose family has run Jamaica since 1911.
“You can feel it in your body,” she said.
As more cases of coronavirus are reported across Europe and U.S. health officials warn of an inevitably wider spread, the concern that has gripped northern Italy is extending its hold. And what Italy is seeing as far as the effects on daily life and the economy may play out elsewhere, too.
Italy’s containment measures are less drastic than China’s — and easier for other democracies to replicate. And so economists say it is likely that other countries will respond much as Italy has, with precautionary measures prompting factories to close, travelers to cancel plans, stores to shutter and people to hunker down.
It is too early to know how successful such measures will be in limiting the spread. In the city of Milan, which has recorded one confirmed case, some of the precautions are self-imposed. Farther afield in the surrounding region, where the outbreak first broke into view, the Italian government has closed off nearly a dozen small towns, paralyzing economic life with no end in sight.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte this week said the economic blow to Italy could be “very strong.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the continent — which even before was worried about slowing growth, global trade wars and the continued uncertainty of Brexit — is bracing itself.
“If the virus spreads, and it will spread, I think any local or national politician would have to take very drastic action, and that will virtually halt the economy,” said Roberto Perotti, an economist at Milan’s Bocconi University, who was working from home this week. “For how long, we don’t know. Can you imagine a [car] factory if there is one case in the factory? Can you imagine it not shutting down? I doubt it.”
For Italy, the coronavirus could hardly have broken out in a more damaging economic area. The country’s two largest northern regions, Lombardy and Veneto, account for 30 percent of the employment and 40 percent of the exports. Milan is the economic hub, and to the east, Venice is a tourism mega-draw for a country that depends on visitors for 13 percent of its gross domestic product. While the country’s north is prosperous, it powers an otherwise stagnant country — one with no growth in 20 years, and now all but assured of its fourth recession since 2008.
Italy had Europe’s weakest economic growth in 2019. The European Union predicted the same for 2020 — before the coronavirus arrived from China.
While traders have talked about potential supply chain interruptions, for now the economic pain is most visible on the granular level. Flights arrive to Milan with just a smattering of passengers, including one this week from Paris with 30 people spread out over more than 150 seats. Venetian tour guides and resort town hoteliers speak about rafts of cancellations.
Wine producer Marco Calaon lives in the sealed-off town of Vò, in a wine region where activity has come to a “standstill.”
“There’s about a hundred companies here who cannot keep on bottling as planned,” he said.
Among the few businesses doing brisk trade are pharmacies, which can’t keep pace with demand for masks and hand sanitizer and are inundated with calls.
As the number of cases in Italy jumped this week, with 400 cases confirmed and 12 deaths, Italians were coming to terms with feeling shunned.
“It’s an unpleasant feeling that we are the ones that nobody wants,” said Salvatore Lamonaca, 60, as he worked at a tobacco counter in a cafe near the Borsa Italiana stock exchange. “That we are the infected people.” The cafe typically serves at least 50 lunches a day on its six small tables. It served just three lunches Tuesday.
“They are killing us with the closures,” said barista Viola Varchetta, 25. “The economy was already bad, but now you really feel it. There’s no need for me to even be here.”
Some people she knows had canceled travel plans to other parts of Italy, she said. Health authorities have urged calm.
“The panic is spreading in Italy at a much higher level than the reality of the risk,” said Maria Rita Gismondo, a virologist at Luigi Sacco University Hospital in Milan. She pointed out that those that have died have been elderly and had chronic health conditions.
Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, said it was important that the city does not grind to a halt.
“We must not spread the virus of mistrust,” he said. “It’s not easy right now to attract visitors from all over the world, but I ask everyone to play his role.”
But doing that probably will be an uphill battle. The city announced the cancellation of a furniture design fair on Tuesday. The famed Milan Fashion Week came to a panicked end, with Giorgio Armani holding its show in an empty theater, the event streamed online for safety reasons.
Between 50 and 80 percent of the hotel reservations that were on the books on Friday had been canceled by Wednesday, said Maurizio Naro, the president of Milan’s hotel association. “It’s really bad and it’s worsening every day,” he said, blaming “sensationalism” in the media and a lack of clear communication of the risks. “Maybe we can resist if this lasts a couple of weeks, but if it goes on longer, I see deep black,” he said.
Panicking tourists were canceling trips as far ahead on the calendar as June and July, he said. He urged people to wait and see whether things clear up. If the virus spreads, it may not be any different traveling to Milan than Paris or anywhere else, he said.
“This is poisoning our lives.”
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Claudia Cavaliere in Milan contributed to this report.