ROME (Reuters) - An official decree ordering people to stay at least an arm’s length from each other would normally be greeted with derision in Italy’s often crowded cafes and simply ignored. But these are not normal times.
In an effort to contain a burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus, the government has said businesses, including bars and restaurants, can only remain open if they can guarantee that customers are a meter (a yard) apart.
Such a rule would usually be unthinkable in Italy’s 150,000 cafes, which lie at the heart of Italian social life and are regularly crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with locals knocking back a bitter espresso or sipping a milky cappuccino.
But on Monday the streets of Italy’s two main cities Rome and Milan were strangely quiet and barkeepers stared out at empty chairs and tables as their customers heeded pleas by struggling health authorities and stayed at home.
“I wish I was having problems keeping people apart, but that is the least of my worries. The real problem is there is no-one here,” said Franco Giovinazzo, who runs Spazio Caffe in Rome and had sold just six coffees in the normally busy breakfast period.
Across the street the owner of the New Age Cafe had asked one of his staff to police the distance order, worried that his business could be shut down if police caught him selling coffees at his wooden counter rather than at the spaced-out tables.
“There were so few customers, we never had the problem,” said Luca Forte.
In a little over two weeks, the number of recorded cases of coronavirus has surged to 7,375 and 366 people have died, making Italy the worst-hit country in the world after China.
Scenes on Saturday of packed Alpine ski slopes and Milan streets buzzing suggested that many Italians were ignoring pleas to avoid social gatherings and shun public places.
Frustrated by the apparent indifference, the government at the weekend adopted the most stringent measures on its people since World War Two, with much of the north under lockdown and restrictions imposed on all the rest of the country.
Bar keepers in Rome and Milan said police had visited them to warn that they risked closure if they let customers huddle together at the counter, or crowd behind the till. They in turn have passed the message on.
“We went into the cafe together but were told to stand far apart. It was really odd because we are friends, but he said if we didn’t, he would be shut down,” said Ilaria Frezza, a 21-year-old student, standing outside a near-deserted bar in Rome.
The rapid spread of coronavirus is changing the habits of a lifetime in a highly sociable country, where friends and associates normally kiss on the cheek to say hello and goodbye.
“We are not even shaking hands now,” said Giovanna Maggiore, exiting a largely empty supermarket. “It has taken some time, but I think people have realized this is serious.”
The restrictions robbed Alessia Rubeca of a traditional celebration with family and friends on Monday as she graduated in sociology at Rome’s Sapienza University.
Crowds normally gather in the university forecourt to cheer on the new graduates, but Rubeca was only allowed to have two relatives on hand as she was awarded her degree, while a small group of friends waited for her outside on the pavement.
“It is sad, but it will be worth it if we manage to stop the coronavirus,” she said, wearing a wreath of laurels on her head to mark the graduation. “We are now just going to go for a walk. There aren’t many people around so we won’t get infected.”
Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino and Gabriele Pileri; Editing by Gareth Jones