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 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 authorities.
“This is the moment of self-responsibility,” he said.
Italy’s outbreak, already the worst in Europe, 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.
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.
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. Only China has had more people die after contracting the virus.
As the government met late into the night Saturday, ministers insisted the proposals were merely a draft. Confusion spread about whether officials would actually block travel or only recommend against it.
As soon as the draft became public, shocked regional and municipal leaders in the north argued that they were caught off-guard and that implementing the rules so suddenly would be impossible.
Conte also announced early Sunday morning 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.
Critics of the government argued that the late-night meeting reflected a lack of coordination and communication with the country that had caused confusion amid the crisis.
Conte said authorities would need to approve special travel permissions in or out of the designated areas for family or work emergencies. He said police would stop travelers to check on their reasons for leaving the locked-down areas.
This would all be part of urgent measures to contain the contagion in the Lombardy region and 13 other districts in the Veneto, Piemonte and Emilia Romagna regions in the country’s north.
Funerals and cultural events are all banned under the measures. The decree requires that people keep a distance of at least one meter from each other at sporting events, bars and supermarkets. People with fevers, even if they had not yet been tested for the virus, are barred from leaving their house, Conte said.
Police officers and soldiers would be empowered to enforce containment measures. Churches could remain open, but Masses would be off limits and the faithful would have to stay at least one meter apart from one another.
The government decree essentially shuts down much of the northern region of Lombardy, Italy’s largest and most productive, which accounts for a fifth of Italy’s GDP.
Matteo Caroli, a professor of business management at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, said that if “the measures go beyond April, the situation will become systemic and the damage serious.”
Last week the government announced a huge support package of 7.5 billion euros ($8.5 billion) in addition to 900 million euros announced last week for families and business damaged by the virus.
In the Navigli area of Milan, known for its bars and night life, people out drinking Saturday night lamented “martial laws” while anxiously checking their phones for updates.
“We are enjoying our last moments of freedom” said Lorenzo Cella, a 21-year-old computer programmer.
Some worried that they would lose their jobs or girlfriends outside of Milan. Others were concerned that the entire economic engine of Italy would stall.
Leaked reports of the draft late Saturday night infuriated Conte and prompted panic in Milan but also resistance and anger from mayors and regional presidents across the political spectrum in the northern areas.
Attilio Fontana, the president of the Lombardy region, and a prominent figure in the right wing League party, said the plan moved in the direction of containing the virus with decisive measures but also called the plan a “mess,” according to Italian news agency ANSA, because it created confusion about what citizens could and could not do.
Luca Zaia, the president of the Veneto region, which includes Venice and other cities marked for lockdown, said that the government had only notified him about the potential ban “at the last minute” and they had serious concerns. Since the region was kept out of discussions to draft the order, he said, “it’s literally impossible” for the region to enact it so quickly.
The government order also locks down provinces in the Emilia Romagna region south of Lombardy. Stefano Bonaccini, the region’s liberal president, implored Conte and the country’s health minister, both nominal allies, for more time to come up with a more “coherent and shared” solution.
Mayors in some of the cities marked for quarantine expressed deep ire over first hearing about the proposed order on television.
“It’s incredible,” said Rasero Maurizio, the mayor of Asti in the northern region of Piedmont, who posted a livid video of himself in a white T-shirt from his home saying that he had just heard about the potential closing of his town on television. “No one told me.”
In addition to Asti, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Rimini, Pesaro and Urbino, Venice, Padua, Treviso, Asti and Alessandria — all in the north — were set to be locked down.
But there were clear signs that the virus was spreading southward. Earlier Saturday, it touched the top of Italian politics as the leader of the governing coalition’s Democratic Party said he was infected.
“Well, it’s arrived,” Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the Democratic Party and the president of the region of Lazio, said in a Facebook video posted Saturday. “I also have the coronavirus.”
The infection of Zingaretti, who is based in Rome, provided vivid proof that the virus was no longer a matter of northern exposure, and that the entire country was now grappling with a public health emergency.
Zingaretti, the head of the country’s largest center-left party and one of the two parties leading Italy, has daily contact with top politicians in the capital as well as his party’s rank and file members.
Already some members of Italy’s Parliament who come from the locked down areas in the Lombardy region have been quarantined. But the infection of a highly prominent figure like Zingaretti, who felt feverish Saturday, raised the prospect that more Italian politicians had been exposed.
“Certainly a politician meets and hugs many people,” said Giovanni Rezza, director of the infective illness department at the National Health Institute. “There is a risk of diffusion.”
Elected officials privately expressed concern that the country’s Parliament, with many representatives from the north, could be a new theater of contagion.
The vast majority of those who died in Italy after contracting the virus have been elderly and many had serious underlying conditions and were destabilized by the virus, according to health experts.
Italy, which has one of the world’s most aged populations, has already suffered enormously from the virus. Now, the potential new restrictions of the government persuaded many in Lombardy that there was more hardship to come.
But some welcomed the discipline. “In China, they are more rigid,” said Miriam Ben Cheikh Amor, a 26-year-old waitress. “Maybe we need some of that too.”
Conte hoped that spirit would spread, and said that now was the time to band together and obey the new rules, not to “try and be clever.”
But some in Milan were skeptical. “It will never work in Italy,” Paolo Imparato, a 26-year-old pizza maker, said Saturday night when asked about the potential new ban on movement. “People will run away, they will go around.”