ROME — As Italy further loosened Europe’s first lockdown against the coronavirus and allowed restaurants, bars, churches and stores to open, Lucilla Vettraino went directly to her hair salon.
“I look like a witch with this hair!” Vettraino, 78, said Monday as she held strands the color of Campari.
She said she had washed, colored and then color-sprayed her hair at home during the more than two-month lockdown. But as the coronavirus ravaged Italy, she said she was “desperate” to reconnect with her stylist behind the Pantheon.
Vettraino secured a salon appointment for the next day. Then she held up her hands in disgust.
“Look at these nails,” she said. “I called my aesthetician and I couldn’t get an appointment until June 26!”
Across the globe, the coronavirus has revealed structural inequalities, the resilience of humanity and the weakness of health care systems. But it has also demonstrated that personal grooming is really central to a segment of society.
That passion for primping is often sharply felt in Italy, where — amid fights between the national and regional governments, concerns about a resurgent epidemic and fears of a coming economic catastrophe — Italians greeted Monday’s opening as a chance for the Great Beautification.
Italy is a capital of coiffuring, with 104,000 hair salons and tens of thousands more beauty parlors for nail care, eyebrow threading, body waxing and massaging, according to a government study by the agency representing the Chamber of Commerce.
European countries with similar population sizes to Italy have significantly less access to embellishment. The United Kingdom has less than half as many hair and beauty salons, and France has only 85,700 hair salons, according to official numbers.
Roberto Papa, secretary-general of Confestetica, an association that represents nearly 20,000 of Italy’s 35,000 beauticians, said his members had packed agendas, with manicures, pedicures and body waxing most in demand.
“Summer,” he said.
But many beauticians remained worried about the longer term outlook, leading Confestetica to lobby lawmakers to consider their treatments as “essential, not superfluous” in order to reduce a tax on the services by half. “They reflect people’s needs,” he said.
Giorgio Gori, mayor of the northern town of Bergamo, among the places hardest hit by the virus in Italy, seemed to agree.
“Now it’s really phase two,” Gori wrote on Facebook, where he documented the phases of his own haircut.
On Monday, clients and owners said that the simple pleasure of the salon returned a measure of normalcy after such long, destabilizing months.
Italy has officially lost more than 32,000 people to the virus, the most behind the United States and Britain, but the real toll is considered much higher. Italians have been forced to endure not only the lethal virus, but a constant barrage of government decrees, followed by often contradictory information from regional or municipal governments, which variably found the national measures too reckless or conservative.
The national papers have become social calendars seeking to explain to citizens the lockdown relaxation dates for what they could and could not do, where they could and could not go, and whom they could and could not see.
On Monday, Italy allowed unlimited travel within individual regions. Businesses opened up across most of the country in an effort to revive an economy that is estimated to shrink this year by at least 8%, the largest drop since World War II.
“We are facing a calculated risk,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a Saturday night news conference announcing the measures. He said that while the data over the last two weeks, since Italy began loosening its lockdown, had been “encouraging,” the government remained aware “that the epidemiological curve could go back up.”
But many restaurants decided not to open because rules requiring tables to be 6.5 feet apart would make it impossible to turn a profit. And the coffee shops where Italians love to gather at the bar resembled banks, with baristas looking like tellers behind tall sheets of plexiglass.
“It’s really difficult,” said Andrea Salvatore, 30, who worked a cash register behind plexiglass at Tazza d’Oro, a famous coffee bar often packed with tourists, especially Chinese visitors. It was empty.
But the salons had customers. Roberto Perilli worked the door of his salon like a promoter at a velvet rope, checking names, and temperatures, of guests who came in.
He said he was booked for the upcoming weeks. But he was more worried about what the months ahead held. He could now see a dozen clients daily with social distancing measures — down from about 40 a day before the virus — and was not sure that would be enough for his business to survive.
Some aestheticians said the phones had been ringing off the hook.
“They’d call and say, ‘you don’t know how much of a pleasure it is to hear you,’” said Sabrina Angelilli, owner of I Barberini Beauty & Relax in Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood.
“I’m so happy,” said Cristina Gerardis, 47, who had her nails painted red by a beautician in a visor on the other side of a plexiglass wall at BAHR (Beauty, Ablution, Hair, Relax). When the government announced the opening, “the first thing I did was make an appointment at the hair salon and the aesthetician,” she said.
Laura Foglia, 70, a former model, who had her nails done in a Milan salon, said that what she missed most during the lockdown was her weekly manicure and hair appointment.
“I had to spend three whole months with my natural curly hair,” she said, “I hate curly hair.”
And especially in Milan, where people like to see and be seen, aperitivo bars on Monday hoped a more dolled-up clientele would draw more business. Some patrons were doing their part and then some.
Elisa Panteghini, 54, who drank white wine with a friend at Milan’s Grapes bar, said she hadn’t yet gone to the salon, but had found time to visit her plastic surgeon for a consultation on an upcoming eye lift.
“Today was a great day,” she said. “I saw what freedom looks like again.”