Swathed from head to toe in a hazmat suit, a shopkeeper fumigates his stock of purple baby cardigans. Not what any parent wants to see when buying their children clothes.
But for Italy, this image taken yesterday in the centre of Rome represents a glimmer of hope – tinged with a great sense of caution.
Yesterday, non-essential shops selling books, stationery and children’s clothes were allowed to re-open for the first time in five weeks.
The development came following a controversial decision last Thursday by prime minister Giuseppe Conte to begin a partial relaxation of the lockdown that has been strangling Italy’s economy.
In Rome, Italy, a man in a protective suit is seen preparing to sanitise a children’s clothes shop amid the coronavirus outbreak
As with much about life in Italy, there was madness in the method of yesterday’s edict. The new rules on relaxation do not yet apply everywhere.
Although the list of shops allowed to re-open seemed random, officials said students needed to re-stock and new parents needed to outfit their growing babies.
Each of the 20 regions must decide for themselves whether to take advantage of them, with some (like Lazio) choosing to delay it until April 20, and others, mainly the worst hit regions (Lombardy and Piedmont), until May 3.
The region of Veneto, where Venice is the capital, is allowing shops to open two days a week.
The strategy is for a slow and staggered return to life as we once knew it, allowing different categories of business to re-open step by step.
Like a tortoise peeping out from its shell, Italy is taking its first tentative steps back to normality, five weeks since the lockdown began. But the agony is far from over.
On Monday, the country reached the grim milestone of 20,000 coronavirus deaths – the second highest in the world after the United States.
Nearly 160,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed so far, but health officials have been optimistic about the epidemic flattening out in recent days.
With such terrifying figures, why is Italy even contemplating relaxing the lockdown? Those who welcome it say it is essential for the economy and to offer Italians trapped in tiny apartments a crumb of hope that life will one day resume.
A member of staff wears a protective mask and gloves as she arranges clothes in a store in Italy on April 14
Meanwhile in Vienna, Austria, a woman wears protective masks while handling clothes in a shop
Families have been growing increasingly desperate as the summer approaches.
In the south, where many earn money in the black economy, five weeks with no work is driving them to desperation. Civil unrest is feared, and the army has been called in to patrol the streets.
In Tuscany, one of the least virus-infested areas, businesses rushed to re-open. For Rita Pasqui, proprietor of a stationery shop in our local town of Buonconvento (population 3,100), the news came as a huge relief.
‘The first I heard of the re-opening was when I saw the news,’ she says. ‘Then I got an email from the mayor, sending me the official document of permission.’
Although she employs nobody except herself, a shop like hers selling pencils for 50 cents and photocopies at 10 cents a page relies on constant footfall to keep afloat.
Certainly, a sense of optimism and defiance is growing in certain corners. Yesterday, Italy’s tourism minister Lorenza Bonaccorsi addressed one of the nation’s greatest fears, that they will not be allowed to go on holiday this summer. ‘This summer, we are going to the beach,’ she declared.
In other scenes, customers were seen waiting in a queue outside a hardware store in Austria
But not everyone welcomes this spirit of apparent recklessness. For many, any re-opening of public spaces that might enable the virus to spread again is too dangerous a risk to take. With the second oldest population in the world, and with many old people in daily contact with the young, Italy is uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic.
The same apprehension has been evident over the border in Austria, where rules were relaxed to allow hardware and gardening shops and other small outlets to open.
One shopper, Anita Kakac, a 75-year-old Viennese pensioner, said she was ‘simply happy’ to be able to go to a flower shop again. But she added: ‘I just hope to God that it’s not too early.’
A police officer hands a woman a protective mask outside a train station in Valencia, Spain
Shoppers queued outside DIY and garden centres and stores of up to 400 square metres in size. Larger shops, malls and hairdressers will follow on May 1.
Queues were staggered and one gardening and hardware store chain made it compulsory for each customer to take a trolley so that they’d be sure to keep a minimum distance from others.
In Spain, construction and industrial workers have been allowed back to work for the first time.
Poland also began a phased return to normality. However its borders will stay closed until May 3.
Italy is hoping desperately that it has passed the worst of its crisis.
Of course, it is too early to hope that a few re-opened bookshops signals a return to normality. But if a country as chaotic as Italy can defeat the unseen enemy, there must be hope for Britain too. Even if it means having to fumigate children’s clothes.
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