“We’re all going to get it,” said 22-year-old Claudia Ghidoni, sitting at a plastic table with two friends, the first time she’d been out of the house since cases in Italy jumped last week.
Since then, life in this region has taken on a surreal air. Just across the furrowed fields from the bar in Santo Stefano Lodigiano, 40 miles southeast of Milan, more than 50,000 people live under lockdown in a quarantine area that stretches across 11 villages and towns.
A network of dozens of roadblocks staffed by police and soldiers keeps residents in and visitors out. Those who breach the quarantine zone are threatened with fines and jail time. The number of cases in the country surged this week to more than 800; there have been 21 deaths.
The Italian government has stressed the restrictions cover only a tiny patch of Italy — just 0.1 percent of the population — as it tries to present an image of business as usual.
But for those who live behind the army trucks and traffic cones that show the lengths to which this country is willing to go to contain the virus, life is far from usual.
In around 20 interviews this week with people inside the quarantine zone, some said the initial panic had subsided but concern and confusion remain. They spoke by phone or from the other side of checkpoints that dot the countryside.
Across the fields from the bar, in San Fiorano village, the mayor said three elderly people died after contracting the virus but he has been unable to discover how many in his village have tested positive. With funerals and Masses suspended, Mayor said, the dead are still awaiting proper burials.
Some expressed frustration at the restrictions. Others said they did not mind the slower pace of life but were concerned that they were enduring a deeper economic and social cost than the rest of the country.
Only the most necessary stores, such as pharmacies and supermarkets, remain open; there are limits on the number of customers that can enter at a time. People are asked to avoid gatherings and crowds.
With post offices closed, the elderly are unable to pick up their pensions.
“Everyone struggles,” Ghidelli said. He said other mayors are frustrated with the level of information they’re receiving. “We need to give answers to our citizens.”
He said last blessings were given for the three villagers who died, all over the age of 69, in the presence of a few family members. But the coffins have been placed in a municipal crypt until undertakers are available.
Ghidelli said he is lobbying to reopen such businesses as hair salons, even if they’re limited to one customer at a time. With schools closed, teachers say they’re giving their students homework assignments to keep them up-to-date. Other residents work remotely.
Elena Forvi, 36, an engineer from the village of Bertonico, said she panicked when the military arrived to set up roadblocks. “The last time we saw the army around these towns was the end of World War II,” she said. “I just felt useless, that I had no power over my freedom.”
But conditions have improved in recent days, she said. Supermarket shelves that were emptied as residents stocked up in alarm have been replenished.
Some grumble about the arbitrariness of the red zones. The closed-off towns have a tiny fraction of the more than 600 confirmed cases in Italy.
“People are getting a little crazy,” said Giuseppe Malusardi, 49, as he passed a police checkpoint near the village of Casalpusterlengo on his bicycle. “Everything’s closed.”
For others, life under quarantine has its upsides.
“It’s fantastic,” said Ambrogio Pezzi, 54, as he strode past with his golden retriever. The dentist was enjoying a two-week break from work and more time with his family.
“We are like hamsters in a wheel, running around and around and not realizing we are always running in the same spot,” he said. “Maybe this is a lesson to slow down and enjoy things.”
The checkpoints have become handover points with the outside world. Some people come to give their relatives or friends gifts of cheese. Others hand over documents caught on the other side. One woman comes to collect special cat food dropped off by a friend.
Trucks and essential workers can pass through the barriers with the right paperwork.
In the first days of the quarantine, residents of nearby towns said some red-zone villagers would stroll out on country roads to buy a newspaper or go to a cafe.
In recent days, more police have been deployed on back roads; the twinkling blue lights of police cars dot the horizon at dusk. Hay bales have been moved to block bicycle paths.
The hospital at Lodi, near the edge of the red zone, recorded a spike in admissions Thursday night. The local mayor assured residents that the infections were not contracted in the town. Fifty-one “serious admissions” were recorded, according to the regional governor, Attilio Fontana, who is isolating himself for two weeks after a staff member tested positive. Some 17 people are reported to be in a critical condition.
The towns have been under lockdown for nearly a week. One man in Vo, 40 miles from Venice, has charted the slow passage of time on Facebook, logging a diary of his chores, his meals, his thoughts and, gradually, his growing sense of tension.
“The unease that is there — the sense of isolation that we are fearing — is that Vo seems to have become sort of a guinea pig of a town,” Giorgio Paolo Carpanese, 63, a retired industrial window cleaner, said in a phone interview. “The town is small and easy to circumscribe. All of the citizens have this feeling of having been used” in something he likened to a social experiment.
Carpanese has spent the last week solely in his town of 3,400 people, mostly with his wife Patrizia and dog Obama. He has cleaned the house. He has fixed the flower bed. He has started to paint the attic. He has wrapped a scarf around his face and taken his bike outside, only to find the main square deserted.
And then, on Tuesday, he took another outing: to the town’s elementary school, where health workers were testing residents for the virus.
Carpanese arrived to find people waiting in line; officials in face masks recommended that they stay six feet apart. Each resident was given a number. After a wait, Carpanese was called inside to the school’s main hall, where eight testing stations were arranged in a half-circle. A nurse opened an envelope and took out a swab to collect samples from inside his nose and mouth. He was told that if nobody called him within 24 hours, the results were negative.
“I tested negative, but I can’t be happy about it,” he wrote on Friday, on a day he said he struggled to sleep. “I’m thinking too much about it — thinking of those who were given a different outcome, of the tension they’re experiencing, the whispers all around them.”
Pitrelli and Harlan reported from Rome. Claudia Cavaliere in Santo Stefano contributed to this report.