Italy records lowest coronavirus death rise since March as it prepares to open borders

16 May 2020, 18:44

Taxi drivers' demonstration in Piazza Duomo in Milan, Italy to protest against the decrees of the Lombardy Region and the Italian Government
Taxi drivers' demonstration in Piazza Duomo in Milan, Italy to protest against the decrees of the Lombardy Region and the Italian Government. Picture: PA

By Matt Drake

Italy has recorded its lowest daily Covid death rise since March as it prepares to reopen its borders ahead of summer.

Italy's death toll from Covid has risen by 153 to 31,763, which is the lowest since March 9, the day after the nationwide lockdown was announced.

The number of new infections rose by 875 for a total of 224,760 and the number of currently infected dropped to 70,000.

It comes as it was announced Italy will throw open its borders next month, effectively ending Europe's longest and strictest coronavirus lockdown, just as the summer tourism season gets underway.

Both regional and international borders will open on June 3, with the government eliminating a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from abroad, it was announced on Saturday.

Italy began to ease lockdown after factories and parks were allowed to reopen on May 4.

Further easing of the lockdown is due to take place on Monday with coffee bars and restaurants allowed to open as long as people abide by social distancing measures.

But restaurant owners have protested against the rules saying government rules are unclear and the entire sector is suffering.

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People demonstrated outside Milan's main train station on Saturday, with one sign saying: "I won't open today to close tomorrow."

Many hope the move will revive a decimated tourist industry, which is worth 13% of Italy's gross domestic product.

Such an opening is exactly what tourism operators have been waiting for, even if European neighbours so far appeared to be wary of the unilateral Italian announcement.

"We hope to work with the neighbouring countries, those who can travel by car,'' said Gianni Serandrei, the owner of the four-star Hotel Saturnia near St Mark's Square in Venice.

The hotel's last guest, a determined couple of honeymooners from Argentina, checked out around March 11, days after Italy's lockdown.

And when phones have rung in recent months, it has been with cancellations, with only a few reservations for 2021 trickling in.

Mr Serandrei said that Saturnia's clients are overwhelmingly foreign, making open borders and an eventual resumption of air traffic key to a successful season.

With no clear indication of when more regular air traffic will resume, he is looking forward to further signals before committing to a June 3 opening. The caution may be merited.

Germany, whose border is about a four-hour drive from Venice through Austria, is instructing citizens not to travel abroad for tourism until at least June 15.

Officials in France made clear that they had sought a co-ordinated European effort on border openings, indicating Italy had jumped the gun.

During a visit to a Normandy beach, interior minister Christophe Castaner said on Saturday that European countries should work together in solidarity and held out the possibility of France acting to protect its citizens.

Italy's national hotel federation said that by April the sector had already shed 106,000 jobs, with occupancy dropping by 99% for foreigners and 96% for Italians.

Another half a million jobs are at risk if the summer season does not take off, according to the association.

Judged by last year's turnover, the virus lockdown and suspension of tourism activities cost the country 10 billion euros (£8.9 billion), the amount spent by foreigners in Italy from March to May 2019, according to a study by the national statistics agency ISTAT.

To illustrate the importance of arrivals from nearby countries, Eurostat figures show that French overnight stays in Italy hit 14 million last year, while those from Germany came in at 13.6 million, edging Italians themselves at 13.5 million. Spaniards were the top with 14.6 million.

Italy is hoping also to encourage domestic tourism, offering vouchers to lower income families to spend in Italian hotels, campsites and other establishments before the end of the year.

Not everyone is satisfied with the guidelines set out overnight by the government, which foresees the opening on Monday of bars, restaurants, shops, hairdressers and beauticians.

Restaurant owners in Milan protested in front of the main train station Saturday, saying that the rules remain unclear and that the entire sector needs more concrete help, including an abolition of taxes.

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