ROME (AP) – Italian police have imposed new COVID-19 travel restrictions with the aim of limiting Christmas meetings involving distant family members, as public health officials called on Thursday for a “drastic reduction” in social contacts to prevent new infections while on vacation.
A modified national blockade came into force on Christmas Eve with restrictions and closings similar to the 10 weeks of rigid blockade that the Italian government imposed from March to May, when Italy became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe.
The purpose of Dec. 24-Jan. 6 slowdown is to prevent a resurgence in January, after the wave of coronavirus infections in Italy killed more people than during the country’s first spring outbreak, according to official counts. The total number of confirmed cases in Italy surpassed the 2 million mark on Thursday, while another 505 deaths increased the official number of victims of the pandemic to 70,900, the highest in Europe.
Despite the new restrictions, Italians lined up at bakeries, fishmongers and supermarkets to do last minute shopping to prepare their Christmas Eve dinners, traditionally multi-course and multi-generational events, which are the basis of Italian family life.
Italy, which has been under localized restrictions since the beginning of November, has seen an exponential increase in infections since then. But the latest weekly monitoring report from the Ministry of Health, released Thursday, suggests that the downward trend is stopping.
Warning that hospitals were still at risk of overcrowding, the ministry called for “a drastic reduction in physical interaction” between people besides the immediate family. The government asked Italians to limit their “cenone” dinners on Christmas Eve to no more than two people who did not live in the same house.
“It sounds trivial and you can ask, ‘Why only two people outside the nuclear family?’”, Acknowledged Dr. Giovanni Rezza, responsible for prevention in the Italian Ministry of Health. “But it is clearly based on probability calculations: the more you increase the size of the meeting, the greater the risk that one of these people, especially if they come from elsewhere, could be infected and therefore pose a risk to others.”
To reduce this possibility, the government has prohibited residents from Monday from traveling from region to region. Police were in force on Thursday to see if Italians on the roads were obeying rules that limit travel within their own regions.
Colonel Carabinieri Alessandro Dominici, on patrol in front of the Colosseum in Rome, said the sanctions range from 400 euros to 3,000 euros ($ 488 to $ 3,700 and could increase for various offenses).
Residents also had to carry police-issued certificates explaining why they were out, with work, medical assistance and other necessities, such as grocery shopping, allowed.
But shopping on Christmas Eve proved to be a packed event, as it usually does this time of year. Shoppers in Rome lined up in foreign markets to buy pre-ordered fish, which in much of southern Italy form the backbone of the traditional holiday meal. Bakeries have done dynamic business selling lighter yellow fruit cakes “panettone” or “pandoro” cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar, which are essential for Christmas desserts.
“Yesterday, there were 900 people in the fish department, all piled on top of each other,” said Daniela Tufoni, who works in a supermarket in Rome.
Tufoni said police officers stopped her on Thursday to see if she had a legitimate reason for leaving. “It is good that they do these checks, but if they go to the supermarkets, I cannot say what they will find,” she said of her car. “Nobody is respecting the distance.”
Catholic churches increased the hours of midnight Mass by a few hours so that the faithful could meet the curfew at 10 pm. Pope Francis planned to celebrate his Christmas vigil starting at 7:30 pm, in front of a small group in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Non-essential shops, restaurants and bars were closed: Milan’s glass-domed Galleria shopping mall was almost empty, shops along the normally congested Via del Corso were closed and the pigeons had Venice’s St. Mark’s Square just for them.
Restaurants and shops have a suspension to reopen for a few days next week, before closing again before the New Year and the Epiphany holiday of January 6, which marks the end of the blocking period.
The Italian government is particularly concerned about the continuing high demand for beds in intensive care units and regular hospital wards dedicated to patients with COVID-19. Nationally, Italian hospitals remain only within the reference established by the government of having no more than 30% of the ICU beds and 40% of the non-ICU beds dedicated to patients with viruses.
The authorities intend to keep COVID-19 hospitalizations below these limits so that patients with other medical needs can receive treatment. Regions that go well beyond the benchmarks have been subjected to more severe restrictions to reduce infections and related hospitalizations.
Italy is expected to join the other nations of the European Union in administering its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday, with health professionals and nursing home residents among the first to get the vaccines.
AP visual journalist Luigi Navarro contributed.