VENICE—If the coronavirus pandemic has taught Italians anything, it’s that the cost of being too close can be too high.
Italy, with a population of just over 60 million, has logged more than 221,000 cases and 30,000 deaths since the outbreak began Feb. 25. Unlike the United States, which has clearly chosen economic viability over human life, Italy and many other European countries have taken a different approach, focusing on science and restraint—at least until now.
But three months into the pandemic, as the first glimpses of post-lockdown liberation coincide with warm spring nights, many in the hardest hit areas seem to have forgotten what just happened and hope to go back to the same kind of socializing as before.
On Monday, the COVID-devastated region of Lombardy saw a spike in the number of newly confirmed cases, logging 1,033 of the country’s 1,402 new positive cases in a 24-hour period, nearly doubling for the second day in a row. The number of recovered cases grew, too, but to truly understand the contagion rates, authorities in Italy tend to focus on new positives rather than newly recovered or those who have died.
(A second, much smaller uptick over the weekend was tied to a rogue funeral in the southern region of Molise, where 73 members of a Rom community tested positive after gathering in early May to bury a community member who had died of COVID-19.)
The shocking spike in Lombardy cases is particularly disturbing as the country sets forth on a path to total reopening from the longest and strictest lockdown in Europe. That’s set to begin in earnest on May 18, when some bars, restaurants, and hairdressers, on a regional basis, can go back to business.
The government originally had set a much more cautious near total reopening date of June 1, but pressure from unions and consumers has led to a more lenient stance and shunted responsibility to the regional governments, which can now do their own risk assessments.
It is still unclear if travel between regions will be part of next Monday’s free-for-all, which would defeat any attempts to keep the individual regions autonomous in their battle to contain the deadly virus.
But before signing off on whether Lombardy will also be able to lift more restrictions, health officials are looking into whether any of the new cases are tied to the May 4 partial lifting of lockdowns. It was celebrated, along with many an aperitivo, with an impromptu street party in Milan’s riverside Navigli district.
Milan Mayor Beppe Salma said he was “pissed off” about the “shameful” scenes of revelers sipping takeout cocktails and throwing caution—and God knows what else—to the wind. He threatened to lock down the city once again. “We are not only in crisis from a health point of view, we are in a very deep socio-economic crisis,” he said after photos of the action went viral. “It’s a bit depressing to have to explain the gravity of the situation again.”
Similar scenes played out in Paris on Monday, prompting the mayor there to ban drinking along the banks of the Saint-Martin Canal and the Seine River after police had to disperse crowds that had gathered to celebrate the easing of restrictions. The city also ruled out reopening the city’s parks and gardens.
“Barely a few hours after the lifting of the lockdown, dozens of people gathered without respecting social distances and the health recommendations that have been so hammered home for the past few weeks,” a Paris Police statement said, according to The Guardian. “The prefect of police deplores the fact that, on the first day of deconfinement, he has had to take measures to prohibit the consumption of alcohol.”
All this while France’s death rate from COVID-19 surpassed Spain’s on Tuesday, making it the fourth hardest-hit country after the United States, Great Britain, and Italy.
Other European countries are also grappling with how to control increasing infection rates without pushing their citizens back indoors.
Germany saw a spike in cases just days after it lifted restrictions, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel to impose an “emergency brake” and restart restrictions if the contagion reaches a threshold of 50 per 100,000 citizens.
On Tuesday, European Commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker warned European countries that the complacency of early release from lockdowns could exact a higher price down the road.
He suggested implementing stronger contact-tracing measures, which have been marginal at best across the Eurozone with many member states reluctant to require apps and other measures that could impinge on privacy. “Member states should prepare for eventual second waves of infections by taking any opportunity to enhance the existing surveillance systems,” he said.
Summer and warmer weather may give false assurance that the worst is over, but health experts across Europe agree that the second wave of COVID-19 is not a matter if if, but when.