Love (and shopping) in the age of coronavirus: How Europe is adapting to the outbreak

March 9, 2020, 7:59 PM UTC

In 14th century Italy, a group of ten young friends flee plague-stricken Florence to ride out the epidemic in a villa in the countryside. That’s where things get interesting. They entertain each other in the telling of tales that are, by turns, romantic, tragic and humorous, a calming distraction while the poor city-dwellers they leave behind succumb to disease and death.

That’s the basic plot of Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic, The Decameron.

In a modern twist, just as the coronavirus started sweeping across northern Italy last month, leaving city and town in a quarantined limbo, a group of young Italians started posting to Facebook all 100 tales from The Decameron back-to-back. “We hope that this long marathon can be of help to all those who find themselves in the same situation these days,” the organizers explained in the Italian daily, La Repubblica

Over the weekend, Italy dramatically expanded its quarantine area, putting roughly one-quarter of its population in lockdown, effectively walling off the economic hubs of Milan and Turin, the cultural gem that is Venice, and the culinary mecca of Parma from the rest of the country, and the world.

On Monday, health officials across Europe sounded their own alarms, reporting spikes in coronavirus infections, and in the death toll. In Germany and France, the number of cases topped 1,000, leaving the French to ban all events in which the number of participants exceeds 1,000.

In Spain, reported infections nearly doubled in a 24-hour span to nearly 1,000. The worst hit communities are in Madrid and Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of Basque country. The Basque government has closed all schools and universities for 15 days to limit the spread of an outbreak there.

In Britain, where the number of cases trail those on the continent, Prime Minister Boris Johnson met on Monday with health and public safety officials to determine whether the country should adopt more stringent policies to prevent the spread of viral infections. Nothing big was agreed upon in the meetings, but across the Irish Sea, Dublin city officials on Monday canceled the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, scheduled for next week.

Here’s how Europe is trying to contain the infection rate, and to keep its aging population out of harm’s way.

No weddings in Italy

Most eyes are on Italy as the cases there have topped 7,000 and the number of deaths, at 366, are the most in Europe. Last week, the Italian government closed all schools across the country for a two-week period, with a very likely extension into early April. 

In Italy’s so-called zone rosse—the “red zone” infection areas of the Lombardy region plus 14 neighboring provinces—tough measures on travel, congregating in public and limiting operating hours of bars and restaurants are in place. Museums are closed, and, until April 3, there’s a ban on ceremonies both civil (including weddings and funerals) and religious (including public Masses and liturgical celebrations).

The idea is to limit numbers in public, indoor spaces to small groups—no small feat in big cities. In Milan, security guards insist customers enter supermarkets at intervals, in clusters of no more than three or four people. That means customers are left waiting outside until given the all-clear to approach the entrance and commence shopping. The strict rules have taken some adjustment for Italians, a nation not known for orderly queuing.

In the Italian Alps, ski resorts now follow strict occupancy rules for ferrying skiers and snowboarders up the mountain. At Cortina d’Ampezzo last week, site of the 2026 Winter Games, no more than three people were permitted to enter an 8-person funivia cable car, for example. The waiting time was no sweat though as the mountain, usually teeming with Russian, British and German tourists at this time of year, was the quietest any locals could remember.

Coronavirus scares kept the pistes of Cortina d’Ampezzo virtually empty last week, in what’s typically “high season” for tourists. Original Photography: Bernhard Warner

The one-meter rule

For those intrepid diners who venture out in the red zones, they must be seated at tables spaced strategically apart, at least one-meter from the nearest groups of diners at other tables. Execution of the one-meter rule has become the subject of ongoing conversation in public. Typically, a restaurant or bar will allow customers to sit at alternate tables—one occupied, the adjacent one purposely unoccupied, and so on. Fail to comply, and the manager get hits with a 206 euro ($235) fine.

Bars that don’t have enough room have opted to close. Others have taken to inventive ways to keep clients at bay.

Games without fans

In soccer-mad Italy, Sunday means game day. The country’s top professional league, Serie A, could return to the pitch over the weekend on one condition: the stadiums had to be closed to fans. It made for eerily quiet matches, and plenty of off-the-pitch protests about the “beautiful game” in crisis.

Pope Francis did his part too to keep the throngs of faithful somewhat protected from coronavirus. On Sunday, he opted to live-stream his weekly Angelus blessing from a library inside the Vatican Walls. Later, he went to his customary perch at the window overlooking Saint Peter’s square to bless those who remained.

Two days prior, the Vatican reported its first case of coronavirus inside the tiny city-state.

With additional reporting by Katherine Dunne in London and Ian Mount in Madrid.

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