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Italy will take small steps to restart its economy as early as this week

Italy’s prime minister said the country cannot afford to prolong a total lockdown over coronavirus.

An ice shop in lockdown in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy.
Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced plans on Sunday, April 26, that sketch out how the government will incrementally relax coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions in the coming months, some of which will be lifted as early as this week.

Conte’s plans highlight how Italy — where the coronavirus has been more lethal than anywhere else in Europe — is seeking to strike a balance between reviving its nearly lifeless economy and unleashing a new wave of cases that will cause another lockdown.

In an interview with the newspaper La Repubblica, Conte explained that some businesses considered “strategic” — primarily involved in exports — could be opened as early as this week. He pointed out that letting these sectors restart was urgent because they could be cut out of production chains, according to Reuters.

“We can’t prolong any further this lockdown ... we would risk seriously undermining the socioeconomic fabric of the country,” Conte said.

According to Reuters’s analysis of local reporting and Conte’s interview, the tentative plan for what he has called “phase 2” of the coronavirus response looks like this:

  • Construction, manufacturing, and wholesale businesses open on May 4
  • Retailers open on May 11
  • Bars and restaurants open on May 18
  • Schools will remain closed until September

As these policies roll out, businesses are expected to observe safety measures to minimize risk of transmission. Conte is expected to release a formal roadmap laying out the details early next week.

His interview comes days after a Facebook post in which he called for “serious scientific policy” that helps gradually revive the economy.

“I would like to be able to say, let’s open everything. Right away,” he wrote on Facebook. “But such a decision would be irresponsible. It would make the contagion curve rise uncontrollably, and would jeopardize all the efforts that we’ve made until now.”

Italy has been in strict lockdown since March 9. It was in many ways the canary in the coal mine for the West: the first example outside Asia of the havoc the coronavirus could wreak on an unprepared country.

A new study suggests Italy’s outbreak likely began in January, but the country diagnosed its first local patient on February 21 — after which, cases and deaths quickly skyrocketed. More than 25,000 people have died in the country, giving it one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the world.

Italy’s Civil Protection Agency reported that the rate of new infections has slowed since early March; last week, it said there was a decrease in the number of active coronavirus cases in Italy for the first time since February.

The day after Italy crossed that milestone — in which the number of cases dropped by 20 from the day before — the Italian special commissioner for the coronavirus emergency, Domenico Arcuri, said, “This gives us the strength to go forward.”

Italian business leaders have been advocating for restarting the economy as quickly as possible. but so far the government has emphasized that reopening must be extremely careful in order to avoid a relapse.

In his Facebook post, Conte said that “maximum caution” must remain as a guiding principle, and that “the easing of measures must take place on the basis of a well-structured and articulated plan.”

Conte’s coronavirus advisers have also emphasized to the public that things won’t simply be returning to normal anytime soon.

“It’s not by chance that you use the same word, ‘depression,’ both economically and existentially,” Fabrizio Starace, a psychiatrist on Italy’s coronavirus task force, recently told the Washington Post. “The fantasy everyone is entertaining is that of a return to normalcy. Clearly our gradual recovery won’t match normalcy.”

“We need to rethink development, production, the speed of our lives, our lifestyles,” Filomena Maggino, another member of the task force, told the Post.

Some politicians in Italy have called for using antibody testing to see who has recovered from Covid-19 in order to get them to repopulate the workforce and to give them special licenses. Still, as of now, the WHO has recommended against such policies given concerns over the possibility of reinfection and uncertainty over the biological markers that indicate immunity.

Italy is also rolling out a non-mandatory contact tracing app that will alert people if they’ve been near someone with a confirmed case of the virus, but the Washington Post reports that experts are skeptical Italy has the labor force required to make the app effective for executing targeted quarantines.

Nonetheless, Italy, poised for the worst recession it has seen since World War II, is moving ahead as quickly and as carefully as possible.