An empty restaurant in Piazza della Scala in Milan, northern Italy. Picture: AFP/MIGUEL MEDINA
An empty restaurant in Piazza della Scala in Milan, northern Italy. Picture: AFP/MIGUEL MEDINA

Rome — On Wednesday, Italy vowed to spend up to €25bn to fight the coronavirus epidemic that has already killed 631 people there and put the country’s hospitals and the economy under severe strain.

Economy minister Roberto Gualtieri said “half these resources” would be used immediately and the other half stowed away and only tapped should the health crisis spiral out of control.

The announcement came as Italians grapple with a nationwide clampdown on public gathering that has emptied streets and shuttered everything from churches to restaurants. AFP photographers spotted masked sanitation workers in white nylon suits and rubber gloves spraying Florence’s vacant St Mark’s Square with disinfectant through a long hose.

“I can’t even recognise Rome now,” Muscovite Yekaterina said while posing alone for a photo at the usually bustling Trevi Fountain in the heart of Rome.

Part of the government’s cash injection is meant to help restaurants and hotels now suffering the brunt of an implosion in the number of tourists who visit Italy’s art-filled churches and achingly beautiful hills. “We are preparing rules to protect companies, workers and families,” labour minister Nunzia Catalfo said.

The government also put more meat on the bones of an emerging plan to let families temporarily suspend some mortgage and social tax payments. Gualtieri said “partial state guarantees” are being discussed to help Italy’s creaking banks survive a resulting cash crunch.

Allianz chief economist Ludovic Subran noted that the size of Italy’s rescue plan was the same as the one the EU announced for the entire 27-nation bloc on Monday. “It shows that Italy alone is supposed to make as much effort as the EU as a whole.”

Total shutdown

Italy has witnessed more than half of all the deaths recorded outside China since the epidemic first started spreading from that country’s central Wuhan province in January.

The Italian government responded to the outbreak last month by quarantining 50,000 people in 11 villages that were worst affected in the north. That was followed on Sunday with restrictions on travel and public gatherings in Milan’s Lombardy region and surrounding areas such as Venice, in which more than 15-million live and 40% of the nation’s economic activity occurs.

The Lombardy measures were extended to all of the Mediterranean country’s 60-million people on Tuesday morning.

The restrictions have had a profound effect on the way Italians live and work. The central streets of Rome were deserted on Wednesday morning and buses usually crammed with commuters ran almost empty.

Tourists have largely disappeared and the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square is closed to all but those who want to enter the main basilica to pray.

People have been told to keep at least a metre from each other and handshakes are frowned upon. Italians have found themselves starting to talk to each other a few steps apart — while often laughing about the regulations along the way.

“For the love and a sense of responsibility towards Rome and all citizens, with enormous and profound disappointment, we decided to close to help the whole community out,” said a sign on one restaurant in Rome’s popular Trastevere neighbourhood. “As soon as the emergency has passed, we will organise a free carbonara day for doctors, nurses and healthcare workers.”

All restaurants and bars across Italy have to close by 6pm.

However, Lombardy region leader Attilio Fontana urged the government in Rome to close all stores and public transport for 15 days across swathes of the north because “the situation is approaching a dangerous moment”. He said only emergency services and essential services such as garbage collection should continue during the total clampdown on public life.

The government in Rome was expected to consider his request later Wednesday.