ROME — Italy’s government on Saturday took the extraordinary step of locking down much of the country’s north, restricting movement for about a quarter of the Italian population in regions that serve as the country’s economic engine.
The move represents the most sweeping effort outside China to stop the spread of the coronavirus and is tantamount to sacrificing the Italian economy in the short term to save it from the ravages of the virus in the long term.
“We are facing an emergency, a national emergency,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in announcing the government decree in a news conference after 2 a.m. Sunday.
He called the measures “very rigorous” but necessary to contain the contagion and ease the burden on Italy’s strained health care system. He said people traveling out of, or around, the locked-down areas would have the “obligation” to explain why to the authorities.
“This is the moment of self-responsibility,” he said.
Italy’s outbreak has inflicted serious damage on one of the Continent’s most fragile economies. It has led to the closure of schools and, by Saturday, it had infected the leader of one of the two parties in the governing coalition as Nicola Zingaretti, head of the Democratic Party and president of the region of Lazio, announced he was infected.
By Saturday, Italy had more than 5,800 cases of the virus, 233 of them fatal, with increases of almost 800 infections and 49 deaths from the day before.
The measures will turn stretches of Italy’s wealthy north — including the economic and cultural capital of Milan and landmark tourist destinations such as Venice — into quarantined red zones until at least April 3. They will prevent the free movement of roughly 16 million people.
As the government met late into the night Saturday, ministers insisted the proposals were merely a draft. Shocked regional and municipal leaders argued that they were caught off-guard and that implementing the rules so suddenly would be impossible.
Conte also announced that the government would extend less restrictive measures previously imposed in the north, such as the closure of museums, movie theaters, discos and betting parlors, to the rest of the country.
Conte said authorities would need to approve special travel permissions in or out of the designated areas for family or work emergencies. Police officers and soldiers would be empowered to enforce containment measures.