ROME–The Italian government has approved an unprecedented decree that will block all unnecessary movement of nearly 16 million people to try to stop the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus. The decree applies to more than a dozen provinces in extended red zones in the north of the country. Anyone defying the order will be subject to criminal charges.
This draconian measure comes after Italian civil protection authorities reported an increase in cases from 4,636 to 5,883 across the entire country in a 24-hour period between Friday and Saturday. Deaths also increased during that time from 147 to 233.
The decree limits all movement, with very few exceptions, into and out of the northern region, which includes the cities of Venice, Milan, Parma, and Modena. It is unclear what will happen to foreign nationals and tourists still in those areas.
A draft of the decree was leaked to the Italian press hours before Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed it in the early morning hours, causing a mass exodus by road and rail from the affected area. Several flights reportedly were allowed to leave from both Milan and Venice, adding confusion to an already chaotic situation.
“We are facing an emergency. A national emergency” Conte said at a press conference around 2 a.m. after an emergency cabinet meeting ended. “This is the moment of self-responsibility.”
Schools and many businesses have been closed in the north since Feb. 21, when the number of cases of COVID-19 in the country grew from just three in Rome to nearly 1,000 in Lombardy and Veneto provinces in under a week.
The decree also extends the closure of schools in the northern red zones to at least April 3 and aims to shut down all gyms, theaters, museums, bars, clubs and churches. Some coffee bars and restaurants will be allowed to remain open on rotation if they can ensure that people are seated a meter, or a little over three feet, apart from each other.
Last Thursday, the Italian government also closed schools and universities across the entire country until at least March 15 and ordered that public gatherings could only be held if people in attendance could maintain a distance of one meter from one another. The government also recommended that anyone over the age of 65 stay indoors, and that everyone refrain from touching or air-kissing as a form of greeting.
The new decree also extends some restrictions across all of Italy, including the closure of cinemas and theaters, nightclubs, bars and museums, as well as famous sites like the Roman Colosseum. Churches are open across the country but weddings and funerals have been suspended.
Anyone who has tested positive with the coronavirus—even if asymptomatic—is required by law to remain at home. It is as yet unclear how the authorities will be able to enforce these measures.