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Coronavirus Repercussion: Tourists Abandon Rome's Streets


Our internal headline for this next story is Rome in the time of coronavirus. Italy faces the biggest outbreak outside of Asia. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on life in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On Wednesday, the government extended the school and university shutdown nationwide, causing raucous talk show debates. Italy's leading public intellectual Massimo Cacciari demanded clarity.


MASSIMO CACCIARI: (Through interpreter) Someone has to explain the logic behind these measures. Schools closed, but offices open? I need a scientific explanation why contagion is greater in schools than in offices, or else we'll all go crazy.

POGGIOLI: Some politicians may have done so already. Luca Zaia is the governor of the virus-hit Veneto region. Zaia is also a member of the hard-right populist League party that's openly anti-migrant. This is his explanation why the virus originated in China.


LUCA ZAIA: (Through interpreter) It's a cultural fact that China has paid a big price for this epidemic because we've all seen them eat living mice and things like that.

POGGIOLI: Roundly criticized, Zaia then apologized to the Chinese ambassador. An immediate virus repercussion is the plunge in tourism, projected to cost the country more than $8 billion. Rome is hit hard.

It's 10:30 a.m. We're at the foot of the Spanish Steps. It's eerily quiet, hardly anyone here. No one's sitting around the fountain. No sight of tourists carrying purchases from nearby boutiques - Valentino, Armani or Prada.

To be honest, emptied of tourists, Rome's piazzas and artistic monuments 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 has been studying at John Cabot University, but he's on the next flight home to New Jersey.

NICHOLAS BLANCO: I'm not nervous about the virus at all, 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.

POGGIOLI: One very sad sight is the open-air Campo de' Fiori market. Large stalls are laden with piles of luscious fruits and vegetables, but no one's shopping. Claudio Zampa, supplier of some of Rome's best restaurants, is demoralized. All he has is a few home delivery orders.

CLAUDIO ZAMPA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He shows me the invoice for one of Rome's top five-star hotels. In the last two days, all it ordered was 11 pounds of potatoes.

ZAMPA: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "The world treats us like disease carriers," Zampa complains. "Many countries don't even want our products, including Parmesan cheese." "Fact is," he says, "Italy did more virus tests than other countries, and now we're paying for our transparency." Italy's top health authorities have recommended people stay at least three feet apart and abstain from exchanging kisses on each cheek. And in a city of some 900 churches, religious authorities have given priests specific directives, including keeping holy water vessels empty.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: At the small San Giacomo Church, 10 elderly people attend 7:30 a.m. mass. Following church orders, the priest puts communion wafers on worshippers' hands, not their tongues, and he leaves out the usual call to shake hands as a sign of peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: The worshippers file out morosely into empty Roman streets.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEP DEALER'S "THE WAY HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.