The boisterous hum of Rome dwindled to a whisper and police patrols kept people apart in cafes as Italy enforced an extraordinary, sweeping lockdown in hopes of not becoming the next epicenter of the spreading coronavirus epidemic now that life in China is edging back to normal.
Infections in Italy topped the 10,000 mark — more than anywhere but China — and the number of deaths from the virus rose Tuesday to 631 from 463 a day earlier, Italian Civil Protection authorities said.
Police across the country patrolled cafes to ensure owners kept customers 1 metre apart during daylight hours and then enforced a strict 6 p.m. closure order.
“It’s bad. People are terrorized,” said Massimo Leonardo, who runs a market stall. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 119,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,200 have died.
By encouraging many of Italy’s 62 million people to stay home and further drying up what was left of the country’s already battered tourism industry, the lockdown could increase the likelihood of a recession, dealing another blow to reeling global markets.
Italy’s economy, the third-largest of the 19 countries that use the euro currency, relies heavily on industries requiring the physical presence and proximity of workers: tourism, manufacturing, and retail.
Italians shouldn’t leave home unless for work, health care or “necessities” such as grocery shopping, the premier’s office said. Early closures of shops, cafes and restaurants amounted to a seismic restriction in a country that prizes its gastronomy, luxuries and cafe culture.
“I’ll do whatever they tell me to do,” Rome florist Stefano Fulvi said. “If I have to close, I’ll close.”
Italy also found itself increasingly sealed off as other countries sought to keep infections contained.
Malta and Spain announced a ban on air traffic from Italy. British Airways and Air Canada suspended all Italy flights. Austria barred travelers from crossing the border without a medical certificate. Slovenia closed its border with Italy, and Albania banned Italy air and ferry traffic. Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Germany strengthened travel advisories and urged their citizens to leave. Even the Vatican erected a new barricade at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.
“Get out of northern Italy if you’re there,” said Erik Broegger Rasmussen, head of consular services for Denmark’s foreign ministry.
But in China, the diminishing threat prompted President Xi Jinping to visit the central city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, on Tuesday and declare: “We will certainly defeat this epidemic.”
It was the latest sign that China is edging back toward normal after weeks of extreme quarantine measures. A day after Xi’s visit to Wuhan, China reported just 24 new infections Wednesday, down from thousands each day last month.
“Things are slowly returning to normal,” said Yang Tianxiao, a finance worker in Beijing, where the city government is gradually easing restrictions.
In a reversal of positions, China is seeing new cases brought in from overseas. In Beijing, the capital, all the new cases of COVID-19 reported on Wednesday came from outside the country, five from Italy and one from the United States.
Improving reports continued to come from South Korea, too, with 242 new cases reported Wednesday, a considerable drop from its highs.
But in growing swaths of the globe, virus-related disruptions were increasingly the new normal. More than 100 countries — over half of the United Nations’ membership — have now confirmed cases.
France’s government advised voters to bring their own pens to local elections Sunday so they won’t have to share. The United Nations announced the closure of its New York headquarters complex to the general public. Albania told its citizens to stay home — banning public gatherings and shuttering schools, entertainment centers, gymnasiums and public pools.
The virus reached into the corridors of power. In the United States, several senior politicians were self-quarantined, and in Spain, a leading member of a far-right party tested positive for the virus. A British health minister became the first UK lawmaker to be diagnosed with the disease.
At least two top European military commanders also tested positive after a conference on an American military base in Germany, and the commander of U.S. Army in Europe isolated himself in case he also was exposed.
New York’s governor announced he is sending the National Guard to scrub public places and deliver food in a New York City suburb that is at the center of the nation’s biggest known cluster of infections.
In Washington state, where 19 of its 24 deaths have been connected to a Seattle-area nursing home, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new rules for screening health care workers and limiting visitors at nursing homes. Inslee was planning a news conference for Wednesday morning to announce a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, a person involved in planning the decision told The Associated Press.
And in California, thousands of restless passengers stuck on a cruise ship hit by the coronavirus waited their turn to get off the vessel and head to U.S. military bases or their home countries for two weeks of quarantine.
Worldwide, growing numbers of children were being taught online as school closures spread. The outbreak has interrupted schooling for nearly 363 million students worldwide, with 15 countries imposing nationwide school closures and 14 implementing localized closures, the U.N.’s education agency said.
The virus has shaken global markets. U.S. stocks, oil and other financial markets around the world went on another wild ride Tuesday, clawing back ground after their historic plunge the previous day.
Investors are likely to see more big swings until the number of infections slows down, and fear was still rampant that economies stood at the brink of recession, market watchers said.
“We are in a global panic,” said Estelle Brack, an economist in Paris. “We are in the deep unknown.”