Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

With Italy's Coronavirus Cases Rising Fast, Rome's Streets Go Quiet

Tourists wearing respiratory masks visit the Coliseum in Rome on Friday. Italy's coronavirus cases have continued to rise, making it one of the hardest-hit countries.
Tiziana Fabi AFP via Getty Images
Tourists wearing respiratory masks visit the Coliseum in Rome on Friday. Italy's coronavirus cases have continued to rise, making it one of the hardest-hit countries.

Italy is undergoing the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside Asia.

After surfacing two weeks ago in northern Italy, its economic engine, confusion and fear have spread throughout the country.

Italians' new must-see TV show is at 6 p.m. for Civil Protection Agency updates on how many infections, and how many deaths. On Friday, the agency said a total of 4,636 people have tested positive and 197 have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. After China, Italy has the second-highest reported death toll and third-highest confirmed cases of infection in the world.


Now even the Vatican has announced its first coronavirus patient.

Although 49 people have tested positive in Rome province, it is far from the epicenter in the northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. But you wouldn't know it walking around the capital city, which feels like a ghost town.

Public gatherings are suspended, which means for Italy's secular religion, soccer, matches will be held in empty stadiums for the next month.

On Wednesday, the government extended school and university shutdown nationwide, causing alarm among families and raucous talk show debates. As many as 10 million students and nearly 1 million teachers, professors and staff will have to stay home for at least two weeks, Italian media report.

Italy's leading public intellectual, Massimo Cacciari, demanded clarity. "Someone has to explain the logic behind these measures: schools closed, but offices open. I need a scientific explanation," Cacciari says, "why contagion is greater in schools than in offices — or else we'll all go crazy!"


But some Italian politicians have fueled conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus.

For example, Luca Zaia, the governor of the virus-hit Veneto region who is a member of the hard-right populist League Party, is openly anti-immigrant and made offensive remarks explaining why the virus originated in China.

"It's a cultural fact that China has paid a big price for this epidemic because we have seen them all eat living mice and things like that," Zaia told a TV interviewer.

Roundly criticized, Zaia then apologized to the Chinese ambassador to Italy.

The virus outbreak is hurting his party, which is Italy's most popular but has been dropping in the latest surveys.

Critics are mocking the League's nationalistic slogan "Italians First" at a time when several countries, including Australia and Israel, have banned Italians from entering for fear of contagion.

An immediate repercussion of the virus outbreak is the plunge in tourism to Italy. This week, Confturismo, the national tourist industry confederation, projected it could cost the country a loss of more than $8 billion just through the month of May.

Rome is hit hard.

On a weekday at around 11 a.m., there are two people climbing up the Spanish Steps — one of the city's top tourist attractions. It's eerily quiet, no one is sitting around the boat-shaped fountain, Fontana della Barcaccia. And nowhere to be seen are the exhausted but satisfied visitors, usually laden with shopping bags from nearby boutiques — Valentino, Armani or Prada.

Rome's high-end fashion street Via Condotti is empty and forlorn.

Art lovers wanting to gaze on some Caravaggio masterpieces find a sign saying the Saint Luigi dei Francesi church is closed.

A 43-year-old French priest tested positive for the coronavirus after he returned to Paris from Rome in late February, Catholic News Agency reported.

Emptied of tourists, Rome's piazzas and artistic monuments do shine in all their splendor. But don't say that to shopkeepers, restaurant staff or those running study abroad programs. Many have been canceled.

Nicholas Blanco, an American who has been studying at John Cabot University, says he will be on the next flight home to New Jersey.

"I'm not nervous about the virus at all," he says. "But I'm worried about the fact that if they close down the borders, we're not going to be able to go home for like a year or so."

Blanco speaks to NPR at one of Rome's oldest pharmacies, Santa Maria della Scala. It is out of masks and sanitizer gel, like other pharmacies across Rome.

Pharmacist Roberto Antonini says many of his customers are excessively worried about the coronavirus. "Yes, it's an aggressive kind of flu, but people should relax," he says. And he blames the authorities for causing confusion.

"First they said there was no problem at all, then they went overboard, sending confusing, contradictory messages, creating a situation of total panic," Antonini says.

There is no panic in the open-air Campo de' Fiori market. But it's a sad sight: large stalls laden with piles of luscious fruits and vegetables, but no one's shopping.

Claudio Zampa, owner of a produce stand and supplier of some of Rome's best restaurants, is demoralized. All he has is a few home-delivery orders.

He holds the invoice for one of Rome's top five-star hotels — in the last two days, all it ordered was 11 pounds of potatoes.

"The world treats us like disease carriers," Zampa complains. "Many countries don't even want our products — including Parmesan cheese!"

He adds, "Italy did more virus tests than other countries and now we're paying for our transparency."

Italy has carried out more than 36,359 tests for coronavirus — far more than any other European country.

Italy's health authorities have recommended "social distancing": People should stay at least 3 feet apart, and abstain from their quintessential greeting, exchanging kisses on each cheek.

And in a city of some 900 churches, the Roman Catholic authorities have given priests specific directives. These include keeping holy water vessels empty to prevent worshippers from dipping their fingers into the water, and new instructions for taking Communion.

Inside Rome's small San Giacomo church, 10 elderly people attend 7:30 a.m. Mass. A female choir sings as six priests lead the religious services.

Following church orders, one of the priests puts Communion wafers on worshippers' hands, not their tongues. And he leaves out the usual call to shake hands as a sign of peace.

"The Mass is over, go in peace," the priest says, and the worshippers file out morosely into empty Roman streets.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit