As the world watches the global spread of coronavirus, much of its attention has been fixed on Italy, the site of the second-largest outbreak outside of China (where the virus originated) when the pandemic was declared. While thousands of travelers have already been forced or encouraged to cancel or reschedule their Italy travel plans, others are looking ahead and wondering: Is it safe to travel to Italy?
To help make sense of a rapidly changing situation, here's a look at the recent history and current state of affairs in Italy.
Coronavirus in Italy
The first case of COVID-19—the name of this specific coronavirus—in Italy was reported in late January. Soon after, a cluster of cases was reported in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, and the disease quickly spread, first in the north and then to other regions and neighboring European countries. By early March, there were more than 10,000 confirmed cases in Italy and more than 630 virus-related deaths, and as of May 6, the numbers indicate a total of 213,013 confirmed cases and 29,315 virus-related deaths.
The relatively high death toll is largely due to Italy's high population of senior citizens. More than 20 percent of Italians are age 65 years and over, and that age group is the most vulnerable to serious illness and death from coronavirus. At first, the government of Italy attempted to contain the virus in a handful of northern regions but when those efforts failed, the entire country was ordered into lockdown in a drastic effort to slow or halt its spread.
Lockdown Restrictions Easing
The nationwide lockdown was announced on March 9, 2020 and was extended until May 3. The lockdown essentially required that Italians stay home. Because the virus can spread so rapidly, even among those who show no symptoms (and therefore don't suspect that they are coronavirus-positive), strict rules were in place to limit person-to-person contact and possible transmission. As of May 4, however, those restrictions were loosened, and the current policies are as follows:
- Restaurants and bars are now allowed to open for takeout only.
- People are allowed to leave the 200-meter radius from their homes to walk, jog, or exercise, and they're allowed to travel within their home region to see family with social distancing measures still in place (no parties or gatherings allowed).
- About 4 million people returned to work on May 4, primarily in essential industries, such as construction and factories. Schools, museums, theaters, and other less essential businesses remain closed.
- Masks and social distancing are required when entering businesses.
Travel Restrictions and Regulations in Italy
On March 16, the EU (which includes Italy) proposed a ban all non-essential travel to its member countries for 30 days, and that was later extended to May 15 with the possibility of being extended again. Under the ban, only EU residents, residents' family members, or essential workers such as healthcare workers, will be allowed to enter these countries (excluding the U.K., which left the EU in January).
For Italy specifically, the lockdown has ended, but widespread closures remain, with another wave of openings for businesses such as restaurants (dine-in service) and hairdressers slated for June 1. And consider that if you were to travel to Italy during this time somehow, from another EU country, for instance, and you became ill—either with coronavirus or other injury or sickness—you might not be able to get timely medical care from Italy's currently overwhelmed state healthcare system.
On March 17, the Italian government announced a plan to renationalize Alitalia, an airline that declared bankruptcy in 2017 and was put up for sale by the government before the coronavirus pandemic struck, in an effort to undo some of the recent damage to the aviation industry. The airline has begun to operate short-haul flights but canceled its last remaining long-haul one from Rome to New York until at least June.
U.S. Government Restrictions
On March 11, the U.S. president announced a ban on travelers entering from Italy and most other European countries with a yet-to-be-determined expiration. Although the ban does not include U.S. citizen/resident travelers returning home, those doing so will have to arrive through one of 13 designated airports for screening and may also be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
The State Department also has Italy (and all international travel) under a Level 4 "Do Not Travel" Advisory, the highest advisory possible.
When Will It Be Safe to Return to Italy?
Our advice to travelers wishing to book their trips to Italy, for the summer and beyond, is to wait. The EU travel ban is still in place until at least May 15, and could very likely be extended. Even if it does expire on that date or you are able to travel to Italy under one of the exceptions above, the end of lockdown in Italy doesn't mean life has returned to normal there, and it probably won't for quite some time. With masks and social distancing still required, the majority of tourist attractions and recreational businesses still closed, and the requirement of quarantine procedures upon arrival, it's not an ideal time for an enjoyable vacation anyway. Until more is known about the country's recovery and when you can visit again, keep researching the best places to visit in Italy and planning that dream trip.