March 9th was my birthday and also when Italy announced that the following day, the entire country would go into lockdown to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. I was in the Austin airport when I got the news, having just spent a week and a half visiting friends and family in the US that I hadn’t seen in over two years. Other the past years, my partner Luca and I had been steadily growing our tour business Unlock Italy. After a year and a half I was already self employed as a tour guide, organising tours and services across the country and working on my blog Laurenissima. I was ready for a break and it felt good to be back in the US enjoying such satisfactions as tacos and Target.
But now… would I be able to get back home to Italy? A little more than two weeks before everything had been different.
Lead up to Lockdown
Friday the 21st was when we got news that the Italian government was turning the entire northern region of Lombardy into a red zone with movement particularly restricted in and out of key towns that had been affected by the virus.
Just as it had seemed like a “China problem” in the months before, now it seemed like a “northern Italy problem” and life in Florence and Rome went on as usual. Except that everyone in the tourism industry started to feel the effect of work steadily evaporating as people began to cancel trips and tours and all new requests dried up. We wrote emails, posts, and took videos showing people that everything was “business as usual” in an effort to stop people from panic-cancelling their trips. In Florence they announced that museums would be free over the weekend but still the cancellations came in.
This is when people around the country started to panic shop, stocking up on supplies. We made jokes about how Italians’ pasta preferences weren’t swayed by the shortages when the only boxes left on the shelves were the smooth penne pasta (it’s true, “penne lisce” just can’t hold the sauce, useless).
Study abroad programs started to cancel their semesters, literally forcing students to return home whether they wanted to go or not. With those students went the families who had booked tours with us. Again and again I read “Lauren, we are so sorry but we have to cancel…”
I wrote to guides and drivers: tour is cancelled. They responded: I thought it would be.
A few days into the north being a quarantine zone you couldn’t find hand sanitiser or face masks anywhere and it seemed like every conversation I overhead in pharmacies and supermarkets was about where it could be found. A friend sent a joke picture of hand sanitiser costing €150 saying “maybe we’ll come to this!”. Fendi made that face mask for €190. They are now currently sold out.
I had a goodbye dinner with some friends in Rome where we talked a bit about the virus and a lot about other things and I got on the plane.
On March 4th, as Luca was on his way to pick up his daughter from school, they announced that all schools and universities would close for two weeks effective immediately. Luca turned the living room first into a little homeschool and then a gym.
March 6th was when the Lombardy quarantine was supposed to end. Obviously that didn’t happen.
On March 8th, all museums in the country were closed until April 3rd. Luca gave his last tour in Florence. The clients wore face masks and gloves and they didn’t shake hands. They did a tour of the monuments through the empty streets of Florence. Gyms, pools and wellness centers were also closed.
On March 9th, they announced that the following day a country-wide lockdown would commence.
The rules of Lockdown
The lockdown on March 10th stipulated that travel was to be restricted between regions, we should stay home as much as possible and bars and restaurants were to close at 6pm. I landed at the airport at 12:30 and Luca was waiting to meet me having driven down from Tuscany with all sorts of documents and certifications that my residency was in Livorno. The alternative was either taking the train and being more exposed or possibly getting stuck in Rome.
The only other people on the 3.5 hour drive back to Livorno were truck drivers and a car here and there but otherwise there was almost no traffic.
We stopped for a coffee where they were allowing only two people in at a time. On the ground, they’d marked spaces a meter apart where people could stand. Waiting outside, I made eye contact with the barrista who just looked at me, nodding with a wry smile like, “I guess this is happening now.”
We didn’t come across any police. When we arrived in Livorno, we stopped to look at the sea from the cliff and went home, planning to head back the next day.
Lockdown Measures Increase
The next day was March 11th when Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, announced that lockdown measures would be getting stricter. And the World Health Organization declared that the Coronavirus has become a pandemic.
We are allowed to leave the house only to go to the supermarket or pharmacy, to walk dogs or to go on brief runs (alone). We are also allowed to go to work (if we still have jobs) or cannot work from home though many businesses have closed. If you do leave the house you must bring with you the auto-certification (which you can download here.)
At supermarkets and shops, only a few people are allowed inside at a time so orderly lines are forming outside with sufficient distance between each person. In big cities like Rome and Naples this means the line can be more than 2 hours waiting. The panic shopping has ceased and there are plenty of supplies on the shelves. Maybe not as much as there would be in normal times, but nothing like the empty shelves I’m seeing in photos around the world as people desperately stock up.
Only one person per household is supposed to leave the house at a time and since I still don’t have a driving license (if you’ve been following me on Instagram at @laurenissima_unlock_italy, you will know the struggle!) that means my only time out is to go on a run with my auto-certification and ID in my pocket. People yell from their cars and windows at me to “stare a casa,” … Stay at Home. A few days into lockdown I’ve been hearing reports in the news and from friends around the country that far too many people have been going out with exercise as their excuse and are then staying out for hours or meeting friends. The heroic Chinese doctors who came to Italy to help have said the number of people outside is a problem. Until it’s illegal to go out I’ll be going on my isolated run to the parking lot to run laps and back, meeting no people and not covering long distances. We have to be careful. We also have to stay sane.
On March 12th we woke up to the news that the previous evening Trump had announced that the US would be suspending all travel from Europe to the US for the next 30 days. All of our April clients that had been holding out cancelled within the next 24 hours.
Cruises were cancelled, flights were cancelled.
He announced that “The European Union failed to take the same precautions [as the US] and restrict travel from China.” In reality Italy banned travel from China on January 31st and the US followed Italy’s lead 4 days later. It’s true that Italy was the only country to have done this in the EU and yet we now find ourselves the epicentre of the virus. Click here for more information on this.
For now, May clients and June clients aren’t cancelling yet. But there are no new requests coming in as I’m sure everybody is in the same situation: waiting to see what happens next.
So what do you do when you’re at home for three weeks (or more)? We have been reading. Lots of yoga. Meditation. Reading. Writing. Luca is playing music. I’m responding to more email cancellations and condolences and wondering how we will survive this year if neither of us have an income yet I’m incredibly grateful that our worst case work scenario has always been 0. As in, if we do no work at all, we make €0. Tour guides don’t have the overhead that bnbs, shops, and restaurants all do and I fear for how these businesses will survive if this lasts much longer which it seems like it will. I’m not entirely convinced this will end on April 3rd.
If we are going to stay home, we are going to make the best of it and invest on improvements for Unlock Italy and update people on the situation via our Instagram and Facebook accounts. And we’re going to work on the creative projects we never feel we have time for. The time is most definitely now.
My friend Heather in Umbria is teaching her English students via Skype. Alexa who works for a study abroad centre in Rome is now working from home on June and July programs as students are still scheduled to come then. Tess is taking the time to work on her new album (I have edits for your song, they are coming!). Another friend managed to grab a video game before the lockdown and has reported that in the last week he has killed thousands of people but he assures me … they were all bad.
Across the country, people are organizing flash mobs from their windows in an effort to unite across the distance. One night we played our instruments together on terraces all down the street. These videos from all over the country capture the spirit of Italy in a time of crisis: hope, connection, positivity. Visit Girl in Florence’s post to see more of these amazing videos. The next day we came out again to applaud Italy’s tireless doctors for all their work. I am waving and smiling to neighbours I have never met before but with whom I now share this experience and this understanding.
Italy is sacrificing its economy for the sake of the health of its citizens. It seems likely that every other country in the world is a week or two behind us but nobody can believe it. Just like we didn’t.
This quarantine is to prevent the spread of the virus, to protect the vulnerable, and to ease the strain on northern hospitals, NOT because every person or region or town in the country has a high number of cases. These social distancing and quarantine measures are understood as necessary to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse and for the first time I see everyone setting aside politics or personal needs, coming together in the effort to make this really work. This is our best chance to prevent deaths and chaos and I hope it can last even as each passing day of staying inside makes it harder.
When I meet other people taking out the trash or in a supermarket parking lot, we make eye contact, we smile, and we keep the distance between each other. The feeling is that we are going through something quite serious but also that we are doing it in solidarity. I see kindness and compassion in people’s eyes, not fear, and I feel so grateful that I live in Italy at a time like this not just for its healthcare system but for its people. It’s not always easy living in a foreign country but the Coronavirus situation is making me prouder than ever to have chosen Italy as my adoptive home.
The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has said we have to distance ourselves today so we can embrace each other tomorrow. I’m really impressed by how quickly people here have unified to deal with the spread of the virus and are respecting the rules and offering each other support and solidarity. This sacrifice can save lives and people are taking that seriously.
Together, we can get through this. And I don’t just mean Italy but the whole world.