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Lockdown, Safety Measures Bear Success In Italy


As COVID-19 cases continue to surge here in the United States, the European Union is preparing to restrict travelers from the U.S. when it reopens to visitors next month. Europeans, though, are eager to revive their economies and welcome tourists from countries that have gotten the virus under control. For more on this, we've called NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Italy. That country was hit early and hard by the coronavirus, but it's now seen a steep decline in cases. Sylvia, thanks so much for joining us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: It's my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, would you just tell us more about this EU decision, which has been widely reported - although I understand it hasn't been officially announced yet. So who will be welcome and who will not?

POGGIOLI: Well, media reports quoting unnamed EU officials say that when the EU opens its borders to outsiders, probably July 1, the list of those allowed in will not include visitors from the U.S., Russia and a dozen or so other countries. It won't have been an easy decision. Americans, you know, are the pillars of the tourism industries of many EU countries. Now, the EU says the criterion to get on the list is how well countries are managing their COVID-19 outbreaks. While there are some - still some infection clusters in Europe, on the whole, the bloc has substantially curbed the rate of new cases to 16 per 100,000 people compared to 122 per 100,000 in the U.S.

MARTIN: So will the EU list be binding for all member states? Could one country, for example, decide to accept Americans, even if the U.S. doesn't make the list for the EU on the whole?

POGGIOLI: No. The list is a recommendation, so each member state can decide for themselves. But, you know, all of them are likely to follow the decision because, otherwise, it would disrupt border-free travel within the EU.

MARTIN: But I do have to - remember that, you know, the United States banned most European Union travelers in March, and the U.S. has not eased its own restrictions since then, even though the European infection and death rate has dropped substantially. And I do have to wonder whether that was a factor in the decision.

POGGIOLI: Well, we don't know for sure, but it's very possibly that that was also a factor.

MARTIN: So what do Italians make of the scale of the epidemic here in the U.S.? I mean, you remember that a lot of Americans, particularly American media outlets, were really closely following the situation in Italy, you know. What about in Italy? Are people taking note of what's happening here? And what do they make of it?

POGGIOLI: Oh, my God. Friends of mine told me they feel the reports from the U.S. are like reading science fiction or watching a disaster movie, you know. And Italy was the first country outside of Asia to impose a draconian lockdown on March 9. And, you know, the rest of Europe - the world was shocked. But Italy actually turned out to be the guinea pig. The restrictions that were imposed here became the model that was soon copied by others as the pandemic spread across the world. And much to their own shock, Italians got in line, obediently followed the rules. So they can't understand why many U.S. states opened up so early and why so many Americans are flouting safety measures that endangered their health and that of others.

MARTIN: What's the situation there now? I mean, for weeks, you remember it was just terrible news day after day. How are things now?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, the government's scientific task force continues to warn that the virus has not been wiped out. It's still - they say it's still circulating, and there might be a second wave in the fall. But, you know, daily rates of new cases and deaths have dropped dramatically. Yesterday, there were 30 deaths and 255 new cases. There are some new clusters. A few neighborhoods have been put under quarantine. But generally speaking, Italians are really observing the safety measures, you know. The horrible images from March of army trucks transporting coffins that had been piling up outside of cemeteries in Lombardy are very much alive in the Italian consciousness.

MARTIN: But there has to be pressure to get the, you know, economy fully up and running, especially now that we're in high tourist season. What is the - talk about that.

POGGIOLI: Oh, there's tremendous concern over, you know, the economy. Once the funds the government has earmarked for thousands of furloughed workers run out in September, you know, that's when the reckoning will really happen. More immediately because it's summer, it's the tourism sector that's hardest hit. It represents 13% of GDP. And the tourist drop this year is forecast at 55%, you know. Tourism won't be the same. But there's also hope that something good will come out of the pandemic, you know. Cities like Venice and Florence suffered from overtourism.

Now, the reduced numbers of visitors will make, you know, visits to museums and monuments much more pleasant. Italian cities are changing, too. Bike usage has soared. Something like 540,000 bikes have been sold since shops reopened in early May. So, you know, there's the possibility that Italy might be a lot poorer, but it might be a lot greener and slower.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. We reached her today in Tuscany. Sylvia, thank you.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "WAVE") 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.