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Italy quarantines 16 million people in coronavirus-hit north

Rome introduces month-long ban on entry and exit from Lombardy region including Milan and Venice; exceptions allowed for proven professional needs, exceptional cases, health issues

The deserted St Mark square in Venice on March 5, 2020. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP)
The deserted St Mark square in Venice on March 5, 2020. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP)

Italy’s prime minister announced a sweeping coronavirus quarantine early Sunday, restricting the movements of about a quarter of the country’s population in a bid to limit contagions at the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak.

Shortly after midnight, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree affecting about 16 million people in the country’s prosperous north, including the Lombardy region and at least 15 provinces in neighboring regions. The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.

“For Lombardy and for the other northern provinces that I have listed there will be a ban for everybody to move in and out of these territories and also within the same territory,” Conte said. “Exceptions will be allowed only for proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues.”

The Italian government has found itself at the forefront of the global fight against an epidemic that has convulsed the markets and paralyzed global supply chains since first emerging in China late last year.

People arrive at a pre-triage medical tent outside Cremona Hospital, in Cremona, northern Italy, on March 4, 2020 (Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

The Mediterranean country of 60 million people has recorded 233 deaths and 5,883 infections in the past two 7 weeks.

The virus has now spread to all 22 Italian regions and the first deaths are being recorded in Italy’s less well medically equipped south.

The World Health Organization (WHO) urged Italy on Friday to keep “a strong focus on containment measures.”

‘Messed up’

Milan is Italy’s financial capital and has a population of just under 1.4 million people.

The entire Lombardy region is home to 10 million and is one of Italy’s richest.

The government decree also covers parts of the Veneto region around Venice as well as Emilia-Romagna’s Parma and Rimini.

Those three cities have a combined population of around 540,000 people.

The month-long ban on entry to places such as Venice could deliver a crippling blow to the city’s already-struggling tourism industry.

The Venice Grand Canal totally empty on March 5, 2020. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP)

There was no immediate word on whether the Italian Stock Exchange in Milan would remain open.

“I cannot fail to stress that the draft decree of the prime minister is — to say the least — messed up,” Lombardy region president Attilio Fontan was quoted as saying by Italy’s Sky TG24 rolling news channel.

Jail for quarantine violation

The government degree said people in the quarantine zones would be advised to stay at home as much as possible.

It shuts down all night clubs as well as gyms and swimming pools. Bars and restaurants will remain open but must ensure that everyone is seated at least a meter (three feet) apart.

And it stresses that entry into and out of the new quarantine zones would only be allowed for “serious reasons.”

Personnel who perform security checks at the entrance of the Duomo gothic cathedral wear face masks as the Duomo reopened to the public after being closed due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak in northern Italy, in Milan, Monday, March 2, 2020. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

The draft decree says that those who violate the restrictions could be punished by fines and jailed for up to three months.

Italy had kept 11 villages with a combined population of 50,000 in a quarantine “red zone” for the past two weeks.

The government had been expected to announce an expansion of that zone on Saturday.

But no Italian media had predicted that the broader quarantine would cover more than 10 million people and effectively shut down Venice and Milan.

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