‘It’s like a ghost town’: Canadians in Italy describe life under coronavirus lockdown, warn Canada to take it seriously

At least a metre of separation between customers at the grocery checkout line.

No physical affection between acquaintances on the street.

Police spot checks inquiring about your purpose of travel between towns.

Canadians living in various parts of Italy are describing “eerie” and “surreal” scenes as normally vibrant cities turned into ghost towns amid a countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19. Their message Tuesday to Canadians back home: Take stock of lessons from Italy. Don’t dither, be vigilant.

Jasmine Mah, an Edmonton native who lives in Bergamo in northern Italy, the epicentre of the outbreak, told the Star on Tuesday that she has friends and family in Canada who think it’s “ridiculous” how people are stocking up on supplies and basically overreacting.

“I just want to remind everyone that not long ago, there were ‘only two’ cases in Italy as well,” Mah said by phone.

“Canadians need to stay informed, vet sources where they are reading information and be adequately prepared for an outbreak.”

This week, amid skyrocketing infections due to novel coronavirus, Italian government officials imposed a nationwide lockdown after Italians failed to heed previous warnings. Air Canada also announced that it was suspending all flights between Canada and Italy due to the ongoing health concerns.

As the death toll surpassed 600 and the number of infected reached 10,000, all 60 million Italians were told they would only be allowed to travel for work or health reasons and other necessities. Schools and universities have shut down. Restaurants and pubs must close at dusk, curtailing all nightlife.

The nationwide restrictions were to stay in effect until April 3.

“We all have to give up something for the good of Italy,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the nation in a televised address.

Until the nationwide quarantine this week, media outlets reported that Italy had seen only “superficial” compliance with measures aimed at reducing social contact.

The change has been dramatic, Mah said.

Located about 40 minutes from Milan in an alpine region, Bergamo is a city with an upper medieval town and modern lower town separated by massive walls built in the 1500s that are a UNESCO world heritage site.

Normally in the springtime, the streets would be bustling with tourists, but not now, Mah said.

“Until the weekend, everything was normal-ish. Things changed rapidly. It’s like a ghost town … Everything has just stopped,” said Mah, who is a private school English teacher, translator and blogger.

“It’s a surreal situation. The mood has fluctuated. It started with people panicking, then it went into a lull, then it went back up again.”

A few weeks ago, there was a trending hashtag on social media: #milanononsiferma, which translates to “Milan doesn’t stop” — a reflection of the more laissez-faire attitudes of Italians and their tendency to bend the rules, Mah said.

Now the trending hashtags are #iostoacasa (“I stay home”) and #restateacasa (“Stay home!”).

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Mah said she and her husband are working from home and only leave the house to go to the grocery store. At the store, staff limit the number of customers who can come in at one time. They’ve also taped stickers on the floor to make sure customers stand at least a metre away from one another.

One other change she’s noticed: Ambulance sirens that used to be drowned out by the regular din of city life can now be heard clearly from her suburban home because of the empty streets.

David Stephens, headmaster of Canadian College Italy, a university preparatory school in Lanciano, a central Italian city two hours east of Rome, told the Star he and school staff have had to be nimble to respond to the evolving situation. As the number of cases ramped up last month, they made the decision to cancel a school trip to Venice.

Then at the end of February, before government officials started closing public buildings and issuing stricter decrees, a decision was made to send the students — who hail mostly from Canada but also Norway, Germany, the U.S., Mexico, Belarus and other parts of Italy — back home.

“We had a good sense of where things were headed,” Stephens said.

He and other staff took turns driving students to Rome to catch flights.

Staff have tentatively set a date in mid-April for students to return. Until the school reopens they are working to roll out online courses in the coming weeks.

As for life in this medieval city near the Adriatic coast, Stephens said an “eeriness” has fallen over the city. The movie theatre is not showing films. Bands have stopped playing at the bars. Late-night dinners have come to a stop.

And forget about showing physical affection with friends or acquaintances on the street, he said.

“There’s an awkwardness when seeing a friend. We’re used to giving them a kiss on the cheek.”

Police presence has also stepped up. Stephens said one of his colleagues was stopped travelling in between towns. Apparently travellers are now expected to print out a sheet of paper declaring where they live, where they’re going and the purpose of travel. His colleague didn’t have a form but was allowed to proceed with a caution.

Speaking from the northern Italian city of Padua, Antonio Sinopoli, a dual Canadian-Italian citizen from Toronto, told CTV News there’s a “sadness because Italians are very social people and now they have been basically quarantined to their own homes.”

“It’s very quiet. It’s giving me a very bad vibe … a city that is populated, being reduced to a few people and a few cars is not a good sign.”

With files from The Associated Press

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