Italy's daily coronavirus death toll dips, new cases steady

ROME (Reuters) – Italy recorded 130 new deaths from the COVID-19 epidemic on Friday against 156 the day before, the Civil Protection Agency said, while the daily tally of new cases rose marginally to 652 from 642 on Thursday.

The total death toll since the outbreak came to light on Feb. 21 now stands at 32,616, the agency said, the third highest in the world after those of the United States and Britain.

However, statisticians believe Italy, like many other countries, has suffered considerably more deaths from the virus than its official data suggest, because many casualties were never tested.

A study this week by Italy’s social security agency INPS showed that there were almost 47,000 more deaths between March 1 and April 30 than in the average for the same period in the five years from 2015 to 2019.

Of these, around 28,000 were officially counted as COVID-19 fatalities, leaving around 19,000 deaths unaccounted for. INPS said it was reasonable to suppose that “a large part” of these excess deaths were due to the coronavirus.

The Civil Protection Agency said the total number of confirmed cases in Italy since the start of its outbreak now amounts to 228,658, the sixth highest global tally behind those of the United States, Russia, Spain, Britain and Brazil.

People registered as currently carrying the illness dipped to 59,322 on Friday from 60,960 the day before.

There were 595 people in intensive care on Friday, down from 640 on Thursday, maintaining a long-running decline. Of those originally infected, 136,720 were declared recovered against 134,560 a day earlier.

The agency said 2.122 million people had been tested for the virus as of Friday, against 2.079 million on Thursday, out of a population of around 60 million.

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Booking apps and electronic tags? Italy's beaches seek to salvage summer

TAORMINA/BOLOGNA/MILAN (Reuters) – Visitors to Italy’s famous beaches could be in for a surprise this summer. Umbrellas will be spaced far apart, hand gel will be readily available and even electronic tagging and booking systems have been proposed.

These are just some of the changes resorts are considering to be able to reopen in time for the peak season, as the country slowly emerges from a strict lockdown imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the challenges, Claudio Ambrogetti, who has run Taormina’s Il Delfino beach for the past 15 years, remains upbeat.

“This has been a difficult period for our city, but the beach establishments are ready to reopen as soon as we have the guidelines,” he said.

Like many “bagnini”, or beach managers, along Sicily’s sun-drenched shores, he is hoping health protocols and distancing rules – which still need to be signed off before shutters can be lifted – will allow trade to start in June, even if it is likely to be local.

For small family beach businesses, many already cramped for space, proposals including a minimum 5 metres between umbrellas, one-way tourist-flow systems, hand gel dispensers and regular sanitization of restrooms could prove costly.

Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, began easing restrictions, but Italians are still not allowed to travel outside their regions and foreign travel has ground to a halt.

“We are ready to reopen, but if tourists do not come back, if borders are not reopened, and if hotels do not fill up, the costs of running a restaurant will be unsustainable,” said Salvatore Parisi, owner of Baronessa, one of Taormina’s top restaurants.

TOURISM VITAL TO ITALY

Brussels is pushing to reopen borders for summer tourism, but governments are likely to have to do so at different speeds.

Italy is heavily dependent on tourism, which accounts for 13% of GDP and employs around 13% of the workforce. It has been hit hard by the pandemic, which forced borders to close, restaurants and hotels to shut and airlines to ground flights.

Italy’s National Tourism Agency Enit said it would take three years for the industry to recover to 2019 levels.

According to think-tank Nomisma, around 500,000 summer jobs could be at risk this year due to fallout from the virus, while 100 billion euros could be lost as holiday-makers stay away.

Italy’s roughly 8,000 km-long coastline, home to around 11,000 beach businesses, accounts for 37% of tourist revenue. That share is much higher in islands like Sicily and Sardegna and the less wealthy south.

To date the south has escaped the level of damage suffered by regions in the north, where the virus first struck.

In the Isole Eolie area around Sicily there have been only a handful of cases and authorities there have called for the creation of a Safe Zone to help get tourists back.

Christian Del Bono, chairman of the area’s hotel association Federalberghi, said town mayors had sent a letter to Rome to ask to set up tests and health protocols to screen flows.

“Noone’s thinking of making money, our aim at this stage is simply not to go bankrupt,” he said.

NO MORE HUGGING

The rich northern region of Emilia Romagna earns some 13 billion euros from its closely-packed Riviera beaches near Rimini, around 70% of its tourist revenue. Beach owners there are fretting over their livelihoods.

“This business is all about shaking hands and hugging people. Now we’ll have to make do with a little wave and a smile of the eyes over a mask,” Danilo Piraccini told Reuters.

He has been running the Bagno Milano beach in Milano Marittima with his sister Silvana for years.

Piraccini is hoping to start by June. With foreign tourists virtually out of the picture and distancing rules set to eat into business, he expects some 60% less fare than last year.

Prices may have to rise but costs will go up too since he’ll need more people to sanitize outbuildings, steward the beach and stop small children getting too close. Insurance costs could also rise if COVID-related risks are to be properly covered.

“But anyway we have to open even if it means losing money. We have no choice. The alternative is we lose clients,” he said.

Tourism, like other industries, is looking for help.

The Italian government last month approved an emergency scheme to offer over 400 billion euros worth of liquidity and bank loans to firms hit by the coronavirus crisis.

On Wednesday Rome approved a further decree scrapping some tax payments scheduled for June.

But the beach business has traditionally been based on debt and cash flows, and some are concerned delays in processing state-backed loans from banks could create a shortfall.

To manage flows, bagnini are being urged to consider solutions including booking systems and apps to assign time slots and electronic bracelets to count and control beachgoers.

To improve protection, one company has even offered to build plexiglass booths for beach owners to create safe spaces.

“We’ll be coming up with a few innovative measures of our own but the plexiglass idea is out,” said Piraccini. “You may not get coronavirus, but you’ll get everything else from sunburn to exhaustion.”

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Migration issue opens rift in Italy's coalition amid COVID-19 crisis

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s coalition parties quarrelled on Tuesday over a move to grant permits to irregular migrants working in farms and as carers, in a row that delayed the approval of a stimulus package for the coronavirus-hit economy.

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement is against giving temporary work papers to migrants, saying it will benefit unscrupulous bosses. Its centrist and leftist allies, the Democratic Party (PD), Italia Viva and LeU, support the measure.

The scheme is aimed at helping key sectors after the COVID-19 epidemic cut the flow of cheap labour from abroad. It also looks to protect workers by giving them easier access to healthcare should they catch the disease.

Migration is a politically sensitive issue in Italy where rightist parties, including Matteo Salvini’s League, have surged in popularity because of their hardline policies aimed at preventing an influx of migrants from northern Africa.

The 5-Star governed with the League until last August and embraced Salvini’s anti-migrant stance. It subsequently forged an alliance with the centre-left, but has appeared reluctant to adopt the more moderate approach of its new partners.

“The latest draft of the decree still includes an amnesty for those who admit to previous illegal employment practices … We won’t back down on this,” said 5-Star leader Vito Crimi, adding this would help those who had exploited poor workers.

Farmers have said crops will rot in the ground unless they can attract more labourers.

Some 560,000 of the 6.2 million migrants living in Italy in 2019 did not have any work or residency papers, according to the Ismu Foundation, a think tank which specialises in migration issues.

RECESSION LOOMS

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s office said on Tuesday that ministers had reached a deal on the migrant permits on Sunday. However, it said 5-Star lawmakers had reservations about the accord and wanted more time to review it.

The delay infuriated the PD, with party senators issuing denouncing the 5-Star position as “absurd”.

Last week, Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova, a member of former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s small Italia Viva party, threatened to resign if the permit proposal was rejected.

COVID-19 has killed almost 31,000 people in Italy. The government imposed a shutdown on most businesses and the country could face its worst recession since World War Two.

The government has promised to approve a 55-billion-euro ($59.82 billion) package to bolster the economy and wanted to include the new permit rules in the decree.

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Italy's Prime Minister says foreign policy hasn't changed: paper

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s Prime Minister said on Tuesday foreign policy had not shifted after the country received aid for the coronavirus emergency from both China and Russia, in a response to an interview with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

“With regards to the geopolitics of who has received aid, I can confirm that our foreign policy today is identical to yesterday’s,” Giuseppe Conte was quoted as saying in a report by newspaper La Stampa.

On Monday Esper, had told the daily that Russia and China were taking advantage of the virus outbreak to put their interests forward in Europe and “create divisions in NATO and Europe.”

Both countries have offered support to Italy, sending doctors, medical equipment and face masks to the country, which was the first in Europe to be hit hard by the outbreak.

Conte was also quoted as saying that Italy had managed all aid it had received “in total transparency both towards our public opinion and towards our allies”.

“We converse with everyone, but the pillars of our security are NATO and the European Union. And they remain as such,” Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini said in a separate interview, to daily la Repubblica.

He added that Italy had received aid from several countries, including Europe, the United States, China and Russia but that this had not “changed to the least our traditional frame of international reference.”

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Italy bishops scold government for excluding Mass from lockdown easing

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Italy’s Roman Catholic Church has reprimanded the government for not allowing the faithful to return to Masses at the start of a gradual staged end to Europe’s longest coronavirus lockdown.

Masses have been banned since early March when Italy closed most commercial activities apart from essentials.

A timetable given on Sunday by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said funerals could resume from May 4 but must be limited to 15 people and held outdoors if possible.

The timetable for May 4 to June 1 made no mention of Masses.

Italy’s bishops, in a strongly-worded statement late on Sunday night, said they could “not accept seeing the exercise of freedom of religion being compromised” and accused the government of “arbitrarily” excluding Mass from the timetable.

The statement implied that the bishops felt betrayed, saying they had suggested to the government measures to resume Masses while respecting new safety norms.

The timetable also brought divisions within Conte’s cabinet.

“So, we can safely visit a museum but we can’t celebrate a religious service? This decision is incomprehensible. It must be changed,” tweeted Minister for Equal Opportunities and Family Elena Bonetti.

Italian museums and libraries can reopen from May 18.

Italy’s death toll remains the heaviest in Europe, with more than 26,000 dead and almost 200,000 confirmed cases. But the number of new cases has been slowing and the number of patients in intensive care has been falling steadily.

The bishops said the government had a duty “to distinguish between its responsibility to furnish precise health regulations and that of the Church, which is called to organise Christian community life in respect of (health) norms but in full autonomy.”

In response, the government acknowledged the bishops’ complaint and said it would study how to let believers participate safely in liturgical functions “as soon as possible.”

Most of Italy’s churches have remained open during the crisis, but only for individual prayer.

“If there are ways to work safely, shop safely and do sport safely, there is a way to celebrate Mass safely,” said Paolo Ciani of the small, centrist DEMOS party.

In mid-March, the cardinal of Rome modified his order to close the capital’s churches, even for individual prayer, after Pope Francis cautioned against “drastic measures” and Catholics took to social media to complain.

The Vatican, which for the most part has been mirroring Italy’s containment measures, has not yet said when St. Peter’s Basilica or the Vatican museums will reopen.

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Hope in Italy as active coronavirus cases drop

The number of people officially identified as infected with coronavirus in Italy has fallen for the first time since the country’s outbreak began, authorities have said.

As of Monday, there were 108,237 people either being treated in hospital or recovering at home, 20 fewer than the previous day.

Authorities say the small but symbolic drop is a “positive development”.

Italy’s lockdown continues until 3 May but some businesses have reopened.

They include bookshops, stationers and shops selling children’s clothes, as officials see how social distancing measures can be safely applied.

Italy has the third-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world after Spain and the US. On Sunday, the increase of active positive cases in the country was 486.

“For the first time, we have seen a new positive development: the number of currently positive has declined,” civil protection agency chief Angelo Borrelli told reporters.

More than 24,000 people have so far died of the coronavirus in Italy, according to US-based Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the disease globally.

However, as people who die at home or in care facilities are not included in the country’s figures, many believe the actual death and infection rates may be higher than the official tallies.

Important milestone

The Italian authorities have called the figures “extremely encouraging”. The number of people currently infected with coronavirus has fallen for the first time; it is an important milestone, despite the fact that there were fewer tests than the previous day.

Total cases, which includes those who have died and recovered, rose by just over 1.2%, the smallest proportional increase since the outbreak began. There were, however, 454 deaths – slightly up on Sunday’s figure.

While the infection numbers are cause for optimism, the daily death toll is proving stubbornly high.

Intensive care figures also show a downward trend, with occupancy now at its lowest level in a month. Italy is by no means out of the woods. But it is on the right path – and it now feels like its sacrifices are paying off.

What’s happening elsewhere in Europe?

France has become the latest country to record more than 20,000 deaths related to coronavirus, a toll the country’s director of health Jérôme Salomon has called “symbolic and painful”.

“Tonight, our country is crossing a painful symbolic milestone,” he said.

Unlike the UK, France is including nursing home deaths in its daily toll. As of Monday, there have been 20,265 virus-related deaths in France – 12,513 of them in hospitals and 7,752 in nursing homes, Mr Salomon added.

In other developments:

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Italy government wins Senate confidence vote on decree to help virus-hit economy

ROME (Reuters) – The Italian government on Thursday won a confidence vote in the Senate on an emergency decree that lays out measures worth 25 billion euros ($28 billion) to support the economy battered by a severe COVID-19 outbreak.

The package, dubbed the “Heal Italy” decree and presented by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on March 16, suspends loan and mortgage repayments for hard-hit companies and families via state guarantees for banks.

Among other measures, it also increases funds to help firms pay workers temporarily laid off as a result of a lockdown imposed by the government to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease.

The ruling coalition dominated by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party won the Senate motion by 142 votes to 99.

The decree was contested by the opposition, spearheaded by Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League party, which said the package was insufficient and bedevilled by bureaucracy which made it hard for people to access the funds available.

Since the March 16 initiative, the government has presented two more decrees aimed at helping the most needy with basic provisions, and offering guarantees to banks to try to ensure that credit and liquidity to companies does not dry up.

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Italy's civil protection chief sees lockdown continuing beyond May 1

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s national lockdown to try to contain the spread of coronavirus will probably continue beyond the start of May, Angelo Borrelli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, said on Friday.

This week the government extended the lockdown — which imposes severe restrictions on movement and shutters all services and firms not deemed essential Italy’s supply chain — until April 13.

In a radio interview with state broadcaster RAI, Borrelli was asked whether the measures would need to remain in place many more weeks.

“Unfortunately they will,” he replied. “I don’t believe this situation … will have passed by May 1, we have to be extremely rigorous.”

Up to Thursday Italy had officially registered 13,915 deaths from the highly infections virus, considerably more than any other country in the world.

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Russian experts wipe out COVID-19 in Italian care home as EU stands by and does nothing

Russian medical specialists have been filmed disinfecting a nursing home in one of the worst-hit areas of Italy’s coronavirus pandemic crisis. Incredible video footage released by the Russian Ministry of Defence showed the Russian team working alongside Italians to disinfect the home for Italian old-age pensioners. This has exposed the EU’s failure to help one of its own member-states which has become the hardest-hit country from the coronavirus outbreak.

The clip shows the teams ensuring the Martino Zanchi nursing home in the city of Bergamo in northern Italy’s Lombardy region is safe for the elderly to return to. 

Specialists in protective hazmat suits can be seen spraying the home with disinfectant, after arriving there by a military convoy.

The astonishing effort saw 2,000 square metres of rooms and streets disinfected, according to Russian authorities.

Three disinfection procedures are planned to be performed in Italian medical institutions this week.

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Vladimir Putin agreed to send aid to Italy after speaking with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Soon afterwards, military planeloads of medical equipment including 600 ventilators, military virologists, and epidemiologists landed in Italy.

This contrasts with the silence and infighting from the European Union, which has failed to agree on a joint economic response to the crisis.

Last week, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria all rejected Italy’s pleas for so-called corona-bonds as a way to cushion the economic blow of the pandemic. 

George Galloway has condemned the EU for its inaction to help embattled Italy. 

The former Labour MP said: “A non-socialist country is now receiving an influx of health workers from socialist Cuba, whose we’re supposed to hate. Whom the West has quarantined this past half-century or more.

“Russia, which may well be on the brink of a major coronavirus crisis itself, is sending its doctors and its medicines to Italy.

“Where is the European Union?”

According to figures from the Johns Hopkins University, Italy has suffered 97,689 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 10,779 deaths.

Last week, an internal document from the European Union seen by Reuters accused Russia of carrying out a “significant disinformation campaign” to worsen the impact of the coronavirus.

In response, Russia attached these claims and denied any such plan. 

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Despite these denials, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned of “a struggle for influence through spinning and the politics of generosity”.

Senior EU diplomats claim the Russian assistance is a geopolitical move to extend Russian influence.

France and Germany were criticised by Italians after declining their request for medical masks and equipment during the initial outbreak.

Over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron warned Italy not to get “intoxicated” with Russian aid.

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Italy coronavirus deaths rise by 756, lifting total death toll to 10,779

ROME (Reuters) – The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy climbed by 756 to 10,779, the Civil Protection Agency said on Sunday, the second successive fall in the daily rate.

The number of fatalities, by far the highest of any country in the world, account for more than a third of all deaths from the infectious virus worldwide.

Italy’s largest daily toll was registered on Friday, when 919 people died. There were 889 deaths on Saturday.

The total number of confirmed cases in Italy rose on Sunday to 97,689 from a previous 92,472, the lowest daily rise in new cases since Wednesday.

Of those infected nationwide, 13,030 had fully recovered on Sunday, compared to 12,384 the day before. There were 3,906 people in intensive care, up from the previous 3,856.

Lombardy, the hardest hit Italian region, reported a rise in deaths of around 416 on Sunday.

More than 662,700 people have been infected by the novel coronavirus across the world and 30,751 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

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