Italy opens again amid hopes for real economic relaunch

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Chairs and tables are being prepared outside a restaurant ahead of Monday’s reopening following the ease of COVID-19 restrictions, in Rome, Friday, April 23, 2021. Even Italy’s tentative reopening is satisfying no one. Outdoor dining is too little, too late for restaurant owners whose survival is threatened by a year of rotating closures. Yet the nation’s weary virologists worry that Monday, April 26, 2021, will see people crowding bars and restaurants and bring yet another spike to the virus that has not really properly receded yet. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP)

MILAN (AP) — Lunch-time diners filled tables on Milan’s landmark Piazza Duomo even on a cloudy, windswept Monday, proof of the pent-up demand for eating out as Italy begins its second, and many hope last, reopening of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After six months of rotating on-again, off-again closures, restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas opened to the public in most of the country under a gradual reopening plan that is seen as too cautious for some, too hasty for others.

The nation’s weary virologists and health care workers fear that even the tentative reopening laid out by Premier Mario Draghi’s government will invite a free-or-all, signs of which were seen over the weekend with parks and squares filling up in cities from Rome to Turin, Milan to Naples.

“It is illusory to think that you give a sign of opening, and you don’t see people around. Perfection doesn’t exist,’’ Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala said Monday. “You also have to be a little tolerant, and also a little careful.”

For restaurant owners struggling to survive, the return of outdoor dining is too little, too late, and the continued 10 p.m. curfew puts a damper on theater re-openings and sends a bad public relations message for international tourism heading into the second pandemic summer.

Pizzeria Pino was granted rare permission by Milan officials to set up tables along the porticoes lining Piazza Duomo, some compensation for the lost indoor seating, as it served seated customers for the first time since February. The permit will last through the summer.

“We can only be happy,” waiter Antonio Carullo said. “Because we have many friends who have restaurants who don’t have a lot of space outside, or none at all, and they are still at home, out of work.”

The government’s vision is that the renewed economic activity of the gradual reopening — continuing with outdoor pools next month, gyms after that and larger events and fairs from mid-June — will be turbocharged by 200 billion euros ($241 billion) in EU and Italian recovery funds that was outlined in parliament on Monday.

”I am sure that honesty, intelligence and the taste for the future will prevail over corruption, stupidity and vested interests,” Draghi told lawmakers in Rome.

Under pressure from right-wing partners, the government moved the openings a week earlier than initially planned, allowing free travel for the first time in months among 15 of Italy’s 21 regions and autonomous provinces under the lowest levels of coronavirus restrictions. The number of people who can visit friends and family at any one time was doubled from two to four. Restaurants and bars can seat people for open-air dining. Contact sports resumed outdoors.

In Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, restaurant owners set up tables outside and swept the cobblestones to welcome customers for sit-down service for the first time since mid-March. Venice remained empty of its usual throngs of tourists, but café’ owners wiped tables and chairs and placed them outside hoping for the local customers.

“It’s a bit of a rebirth,’’ said café owner Stefano Baldan in Campo Santa Margherita

The reopenings come even as Italy’s intensive care wards remain above the 30% threshold for alarm. Italy’s vaccine campaign is also still well shy of its 500,000-shots-a-day goal and is only now moving to protect people in the 70-79 age bracket. The World Health Organization says people over 65 have accounted for the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in Europe.

That has caused concern among virologists who note that the virus has been adept at transforming itself with deadly variants, and that in Italy the curve has only recently come under control, and could easily spike back up.

The Italian island of Sardinia — the only region that was entirely free of restrictions for a period this winter — has become a cautionary tale. It was plunged into the red zone in mid-April after the all-clear signal resulted in a surge of new infections.

Dr. Massimo Puoti, chief of infectious diseases at Milan’s Niguarda hospitals, said he believes Italy’s monitoring system would allow enough warning if the virus delivered another blow. Right now, he said the focus needs to remain on vaccinations, not so much to contain contagions, but to keep pressure off hospitals.

“That will allow us to return to our usual activity, because we have many patients who don’t have COVID in need of treatment,” Dr. Puoti said, treatments that cannot be scheduled as long as the intensive care wards are under pressure. “Even if a cancer patient can wait for treatment, they are not waiting with serenity.”

Despite the difficulties, the decision to open was understandable, Dr. Puoti said.

“After all it’s hard to restrain people, and also to cope with a serious economic crisis. There were important reasons behind this political decision,” he said.

In Milan, one movie house, Cinema Beltrade, organized an all-day film marathon, from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. to celebrate with “a little craziness,” owner Monica Baldi said.

A socially distanced capacity crowd of 82 filled the cinema for the sunrise showing of Nanni Moretti’s 1993 film “Dear Diary,” a reprisal of the last film showing before shutdown in November that seemed only appropriate for the relaunch, Baldi said.

While Lombardy’s 500 live-performance theaters are permitted to open, the reality is more complicated. Distancing rules allow a maximum 500 spectators, even in large theaters like La Scala, which seats more than 2,000 people.

La Scala plans a symbolic reopening concert next month conducted by Riccardo Muti. But a relaunch of the season with full calendar is not expected before September, when management hopes the orchestra and chorus can be fully vaccinated, and distancing rules more relaxed. In the meantime, it is planning a series of open-air concerts around the city in the coming months.

“The important thing is that there will be occasions to have the audience return, and recreate the unique emotions of concerts,’’ general manager Dominique Meyer said.

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