Thursday

2nd Jul 2020

Feature

Confusion in Italy as it enters 'Phase Two' lockdown

  • Italy went into at least partial lockdown first, among EU member states. Now it is cautiously, with confusion, entering Phase Two (Photo: G.Catania)

Italy finds itself divided at the beginning of the so-called "Phase Two" of its lockdown.

Some like the 'new normal' based on the measures announced by prime minister's Giuseppe Conte's government, while others do not.

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  • Stakes are high, and as the prime minister said, 'if we want to avoid painful backward steps, we need collaboration, a sense of responsibility, and respect for the rules by all now more than ever' (Photo: Consilium)

Experts, lobbies, and citizens consider some of its aspects both arbitrary and unreasonable .

From last Monday (4 May), for instance, it is now allowed to visit family members - provided they live in the same region.

"The law allows me to visit my second cousin, whom I only meet at Christmas, but not my dearest friend, whom I have known since I was nine-years old", complains Francesca, a 27-years-old Sicilian shop assistant, to EUobserver.

Phase Two also makes the use of the mask mandatory in indoor places open to the public and allows the restart of many - but not all - business activities. For example, shops selling products other than food or necessity goods remain closed, as well as tourism activities.

"We do not think Phase Two is enough," says Marvj Rosselli, director of the Modena-based branch of Confesercenti, an association of commerce, tourism and services companies. Modena is a wealthy industrial city in northern Italy, but the situation is serious.

"We are especially worried about micro-enterprises. If things continue like this, only in the province of Modena they will close by the hundreds. The retail trade, but also companies linked to the tourism sector, risk paying a very high price".

While recognising that governing Italy during such an unprecedented emergency is not easy, Rosselli points out that many small businesses are still waiting to receive the aid promised by the government in March.

"Prime minister Conte apologised," she says. "However, as some businessman told me, you don't pay bills with an apology".

According to Rosselli, companies feel that the government's decisions are not based on well-thought-out strategies.

"Why let museums reopen but not small shops? Those that were allowed to keep open during the lockdown have shown they can work safely".

From Livorno, a coastal city in Tuscany, 50-year old Federico Pieragnoli, director of the local branch of Confcommercio (the main lobby of trade, tourism, and services companies), says: "The measures adopted by the government to help businesses have proved ineffective. Taxes have been postponed now, but only to 30 June. How can entrepreneurs whose business has been shut for the last two months think about paying taxes on June 30? Where should they find the money?"

The government has allocated €400bn but, Pieragnoli points out, it is "guarantees, not financing. It is not money going directly to the entrepreneurs, unfortunately. The banks examine the credit situation of each company. If they do not consider it appropriate to invest in a company, they do not lend it any money".

To date, for instance, only a very small minority of restaurants and bars have had access to the €25,000 loans, according to Pieragnoli.

Hairdressers are forbidden to reopen for now too. Many of them have expressed their frustration.

"We are aware of the importance of safety. I've already booked a full plastic face shield in addition to the mask. Plus the gloves, sanitizers and the rest," says 47-year old Melissa Buonviaggio, a hairdresser in central Italy's Ancona.

Paying the rent

Even though she is not working, Buonviaggio continues to have expenses: "I asked the owner of the salon if we could halve or suspend the payment for when I was closed. She said no, even though I have been paying rent on time every month for 21 years".

The situation is very tough also for 39-year old Gregorio Carello, owner of a clothing shop in Trieste, an elegant Adriatic city on the border with Slovenia.

"I opened the business last year, making a big investment. I invested in advertising and 2019 went well. I hoped this year would be good too, but now I have had no income for two months". Carello received a €600-worth aid from the Italian government, but it is a drop in the ocean.

"We micro-enterprises are suffering more than anyone else."

The tourism sector is also struggling tremendously.

Venice, for example, has been completely empty for two months, apart from the residents. 57-year-old Simonetta Busulini is one of them. She has a four-star hotel at the Lido, where the Venice Film Festival takes place every year.

"We've been closed since 7 March, and since then the work has consisted in managing customer cancellations," she says. "I don't know when I'll reopen. I have several fixed costs, employees on layoffs. I am an optimist, but sometimes I feel discouraged".

Trade and tourism are in dire straits.

And the manufacturing sector, traditionally a pillar of the Italian economy, is not much better off.

"The current situation is almost tragic. Two months of potential orders and turnover have been lost" says 74-year old Alfredo Mariotti, managing director of Milan-based UCIMU (the lobby of robots, machine tools, and automation systems manufacturers).

Usually the silver lining for the Italian economy's troubles is export. Not this time. "This crisis affects the whole world, so we cannot hope to make up for the plunging domestic demand with orders from abroad", Mariotti commented.

From northern Italy's Padua, 67-year old Carlo Valerio, entrepreneur and president of the provincial section of Confapi (a lobby of small and medium enterprises), says: "Italian manufacturers have restarted, and all companies have now equipped themselves with security tools for their employees".

According to Valerio, during the lockdown the government made the mistake of shutting down companies in entire manufacturing sectors, "including those that could have worked safely and continued to export. It is not easy to see the logic of certain political decisions. The government is treating us as if we were kids".

Confusion

Phase-2 Italy certainly seems confused.

However, it is not the government's fault, according to Giacomo, a 69-year-old pensioner. The EUobserver meets him queuing outside a butcher shop in Vicenza.

"Conte is our best politician since [former Italian prime minister] Romano Prodi" he says. "What does the opposition led by Salvini do instead, apart from criticising? What do certain regional governors, like that of Lombardy do? What about Europe? Do the Germans know that if Italy collapses, nobody will buy their cars?"

Antonio Varrone is director of the branch of Confindustria (the association of manufacturing and service companies) in Molise, a small region in southern Italy. For him, the measures taken by the government to protect the public health are correct.

The problem, according to the 74-year old manager, lies in "Italy's institutional structure, which greatly affects the country's ability to grow.

Regionalism is unbridled here: in addition to the national government there are 20 region governors who feel they are the masters of their territory and legislate without a strategic vision of the whole country".

Last week, Conte said the government is considering moving up the opening dates for bars, restaurants and hairdressers, which might restart on May 18.

Stakes are high, and as the prime minister reminded, "if we want to avoid painful backward steps, we need collaboration, a sense of responsibility, and respect for the rules by all now more than ever".

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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