VATICAN CITY — The city of Rome and the Vatican had an ominous quiet about them today as Italy experienced its first full day of a nationwide, government-decreed lockdown because of the coronavirus.
Italian police, who patrol St. Peter’s Square on behalf of the Vatican, closed it off to tourists from early morning, leaving St. Peter’s Basilica empty except for Vatican staff including religious, security personnel, cleaners and musicians.
In Rome and around the Vatican, just a few hardened tourists remained, often wearing masks but looking somewhat aimless and forlorn as the museums, galleries and attractions were all closed. They at least had the compensation of early spring, sunny weather.
Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced late Monday that the whole of Italy would go into quarantine in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus outbreak.
Conte noted a “significant rise in the number of people in intensive care and unfortunately in the number of deaths,” and added: “Our habits must change now: we must give up something for the good of Italy.”
The emergency measures, which include restrictions on all travel between cities (except for proven work reasons, health and family emergencies, or to return home) came into effect this morning and followed a March 7 quarantine of the northern part of the country that has been hardest hit by the virus.
Romans largely abided by the lockdown which included an instruction to stay at home and avoid all nonessential travel. Some headed for the parks, or to the supermarkets to stock up on provisions in case the city found itself cut off and without supplies. About a third of the people around Rome now seem to be wearing masks.
Shoppers were generally calm without any panic or panic-buying (although there were reports of some), but rather formed an orderly line which was slowly let through. Each person was supplied with a pair of cellophane gloves to wear around the store and not allowed to move closer than a meter from the shopper in front.
Rome emptied still further at dusk as shops and restaurants all had to close, and usually bustling piazzas, such as Campo de Fiori and Piazza Navona, were dark and lifeless except for a few pedestrians, cyclists and police vehicles.
Since Sunday, as has been well reported, a de facto interdict from Italy’s bishops ruled that public Masses for the faithful had ceased at least until April 3, so now it is next to impossible for the public to find a Mass in the city — “in Rome of all places!” said a shocked American priest.
Many find it strange that although the virus, also known as COVID–19, has caused numerous deaths and is highly contagious, it is not the Black Plague or Ebola and yet Masses, weddings and funerals are all canceled (though some reports claim it is much worse than flu).
Italy’s bishops said in a statement Sunday that they desired to do their part to help the government’s efforts to prevent the spread of the disease. But the response among some laity and priests in Rome has been one of disappointment, especially as the bishops seemed willing to go along with the government directive without continuing public Masses, even if they were moderated in some way, especially at a time like this.
Pope Francis is currently not having any public engagements but rather having Masses he celebrates livestreamed on Vatican Media. A Rome priest called Father Maurizio Mirilli is celebrating daily Mass for the faithful live on Facebook at 9 a.m.
Italians generally have mixed feelings toward the nationwide quarantine but so far at least, most largely support it. Italians take their health seriously, and are usually concerned for the elderly who make up a large proportion of the population and are most at risk.
They also support disease-spreading prevention as medical care and facilities are already overstretched and costly for a government running large deficits.
Some are paying no attention to the directives but carrying on as normal. Still others do not see it as all that dangerous but rather a media-generated story to impose a dictatorship on them, while another group believe the virus is dangerous but a nationwide quarantine is absurd as it will not solve the problem.
Among those supporting of the quarantine, some think it’s too late and the government should have taken stronger action last month, but they hope these measures nevertheless can stop the virus.
So far, unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be happening. Over the past 24 hours, Italy registered nearly a thousand new cases with a jump of 168 deaths, taking the total number of mortalities in the country to 631, second only to China with 3,136.
In the Rome region of Lazio, cases rose over the same time period from 97 to 110, with 15 in ICU. Several hundred Romans remain under surveillance at home to ensure they don’t have the disease.