VENICE, Italy -- Still reeling from the effects of major flooding just a few months ago, Venice faces a new emergency: the threat of a new virus outbreak across Italy that is worrying international visitors worldwide and hitting the economy hard.
The fragile lagoon city, renowned for its unique cultural and artistic heritage, is already grappling with the effects of the worst flooding in a half-century at the end of last year. It caused more than 1 billion euros in damage to residents and businesses, hurting iconic landmarks like St. Mark’s Basilica and La Fenice theatre.
The Italian government is taking extraordinary measures to contain the two main virus outbreaks that hit the northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy, two areas that together produce more than 30% of Italy’s economic output.
As of now, Venice — whose historic center has around 53,000 residents and more than 30 million tourists a year -- has registered at least four cases of COVID-19, with 71 in the whole of Veneto — the worst-hit region after Lombardy, where 10 towns are on lockdown.
Neighboring Lombardy still has the most cases with at least 258, according to the latest official data. Twelve people have died so far in Italy, all of them elderly.
The Venice local hoteliers’ association noted Wednesday that in the immediate aftermath of the virus outbreaks, hotel reservations saw a drop of about 50%. The numbers were rebounding for Carnival, with 95% occupancy reported just last weekend, only to have them drop by 40% when officials took the precaution — unprecedented in modern times — of canceling the last two days of celebrations.
‘’We understand the fear that is spreading but at the same time we are aware that our health care system is holding and we believe that the image of efficiency of our area will win out,'' said Daniele Minotto, the hotel association's deputy director.
Venice city councilor for economic development Simone Venturini said that the economic impact of the new virus outbreak should worry national authorities as much as the impact on public health.
In the city of Carnival, the virus threat forced visitors to observe strict precautions. Regional authorities also closed museums in the city — along with schools and other official offices — until March 1.
Many tourists visiting Venice's central St. Mark square enjoyed much free space on would what normally be a crowded plaza, while restaurants, hotels and souvenir stores counted their losses. Below their Venetian masks, they also wore white sanitary masks.
“We can see the square is relatively empty. If I can say, from my 39-year work experience, there is a very heavy fall, around 40% compared to previous years,” said Roberto Nardin, a Venice gondolier.
The Italian government has staunchly defended its handling of the crisis, even as it acknowledges alarm over the growing number of cases — more than any other country outside Asia.
Following the outbreak escalation, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte has raised the specter of an economic recession, as Italy’s ailing economy struggles with moribund growth, massive debt, and high youth unemployment. Economic experts and business associations predict the virus spread to take a heavy toll on Italy’s output, now seen falling between 0.5% and 1% this year, causing the loss of up to 60,000 jobs.
While there are measures in place to contain the outbreak, authorities also warned against unjustified panic. However, finding the balance between appropriate measures without repelling tourists and breaking the festive atmosphere remains a challenge.
This year’s succession of damaging events has also left some Venetian store owners desperate. Flavio Gastaldi said he is considering closing the souvenir store he has run for 30 years. Although business has highs and lows, his rent does not.
“At this point we won’t recover anything (from the losses he has endured this year),” he said. “We will return the keys to the landlords soon.”
But not all in Venice were ready to let virus worries dampen their party.
Yi Hui Ang, a doctor from Singapore who lives in Australia, recently walked around the historic center wearing a typical 18th-century costume she made herself, as well as a sanitary mask.
“I did have a dinner booked and everything, but that was canceled,” she said. “But I’m still going to wear the dress.”
Eva Mazens, a 7-year-old French tourist also disguised for Carnival, was even bolder.
“I couldn’t care less about the virus. All that matters is the party,” she said.
Giada Zampano reported from Rome.
Full AP coverage of the virus outbreak can be found here: https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak