Italy’s reopening serves as test for Europe’s virus exit

Amid tense discussions weighing political and economic pressures against public-health concerns, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is hammering out an approach that foresees the full return to normal life taking months, according to people directly involved in the talks.

In the original epicenter of the outbreak on the continent, schools will likely remain closed until September, with every step to ease restrictions dependent on the spread of the deadly disease remaining under control, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

Some companies and shops may resume operations as soon as April 13, and Italians could be allowed to go outside and gradually return to offices as of May 4, the people said.

As the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown, Italy’s move to ease its restrictions would mark an important step in the region’s battle with the pandemic that started in China and spread across the world.

The continent has been hit hard. Italy, Spain, Germany and France trail only the U.S. in the number of infections, and the region has suffered more than 65% of worldwide deaths.

After Norway became the latest European country to pursue a controlled reopening of the economy, Germany is also weighing initial steps to ease restrictions designed to limit contact between people.

Small stores could be allowed to open beginning on April 20, according to the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, which has one of the country’s largest outbreaks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has urged caution to prevent a rekindling of the epidemic, will meet with leaders of Germany’s 16 states next week to discuss containment measures. The restrictions in Europe’s largest economy, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people, are currently in force until April 19.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will ask parliament on Thursday for approval to extend a state of emergency through April 25. The country will return to normal life gradually after April 26, although experts are still working on how that process will work, Maria Jesus Montero, budget minister and government spokeswoman, told broadcaster Antena 3.

New cases and deaths rose by the most in four days in Europe’s most-extensive outbreak of the disease, a grim reminder of the difficulties in controlling the spread.

Emerging from the lockdown would mark a sea-change in Italian life, with officials considering requiring protective masks inside shops and offices, allowing only a few individuals in stores and mandating people maintain a distance of at least one meter, according to the officials.

Also under consideration are measures to protect people most at risk, including older individuals and those with previous illnesses, possibly by slowing their return to work. Italy’s Health Ministry is also pushing for more hospitals dedicated to the virus.

A video conference hosted by Conte on Tuesday included an emergency team of medical and scientific advisers. Government ministers at their offices and homes quizzed the experts, who wore masks and gloves in a basement room of the civil protection agency.

For the prime minister, a former academic, it was an opportunity to ensure his government based its strategy on science as the spread slows and the lockdown cripples the economy. Conte’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

For some experts on the Health Ministry’s scientific and technical committee, the ideal solution would be to keep the lockdown until a vaccine is found, but they acknowledge the decision is political and waiting for a treatment would be impossible.

In a sign of the mounting pressure, Italy’s third-largest lender Banco BPM SpA urged decision makers to “seriously think about the next phase, as the country cannot afford to stand still,” Chief Executive Officer Giuseppe Castagna said in an interview with broadcaster Canale 5.

Experts warned about jumping to conclusions after a few days of improving figures. While the general trend is “positive,” the pandemic is still only in its early stages, according to the head of the public health authority in Germany, where new infections rose the most in three days.

“We are seeing that we can dampen the growth of the illness, but it’s really only a snapshot,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said on Deutschlandfunk radio.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation for a third time since the start of the virus crisis on Thursday evening. He’s expected to announce the extension of the lockdown after calls multiplied over recent days for the confinement to last a few more weeks. Stricter conditions have been implemented locally, with Parisians now forbidden from undertaking physical exercise outside during the bulk of the day.

Still, more European countries are pushing ahead, with Norway joining Austria and Denmark in easing restrictions.

Norwegian schools, universities and technical colleges will start opening their doors from April 27, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a press briefing on Tuesday, adding that changes will be implemented over time in a controlled manner.

Services that require personal contact, such as hairdressers and physical therapists, can be resumed gradually, while restrictions on large sporting and cultural events will remain in place until June 15.

“Norway has managed to gain control of the virus,” Solberg said. “The job now is to keep that control.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.