As the world watches the global spread of coronavirus, much of its attention is fixed on Italy, the site of the second-largest outbreak outside of China, where the virus originated. 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? And if now's not the time to visit, when will it be 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, including Italian and U.S.-imposed restrictions on travel to and movement within 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 the latest numbers as of March 30 indicate a total of 97,689 confirmed cases and 10,781 virus-related deaths.
The relatively high death toll (more than 5 percent of those infected) 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.
The Rules Under Lockdown
The nationwide lockdown was announced on March 9, 2020, and will stay in effect until April 3; however, officials have suggested it might be extended. The lockdown essentially requires 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 are in place to limit person-to-person contact and possible transmission. The rules and closures as of right now are as follows:
- All schools, museums, cinemas, theaters, ski resorts, and gyms are closed. Even open-air monuments like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum are closed.
- On March 11, the closures were extended to include all bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses. Grocery stores, pharmacies and tabacchi (tobacco stores, which also sell sundry items) are allowed to remain open. But they have to limit the number of people who enter such that patrons can stand at least one meter (39.5 inches) away from one another.
- All public and private events, such as soccer matches, conferences, and even weddings and funerals, are banned.
- People can go out of the house to buy essentials like food and medicine. Those who need to travel outside their immediate towns to go to work can do so, but only with an "auto-certificate" that verifies their need to travel for work.
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. 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 is in effect until at least April 3. Widespread closures and a near-total lack of civic life mean deserted streets and shuttered bars, restaurants, museums and monuments. What's more, several airlines, including Delta, American, and others have suspended flights to Italy through the end of April (or longer), exceeding even the new EU travel ban. Any travelers arriving in Italy during the lockdown will need to prove that their voyage is essential, such as returning home, caring for a sick relative, or commuting into the country to work. 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. This move would be part of a larger 25-billion-euro economic rescue package with the goal of supporting struggling families and businesses.
U.S. Government Restrictions
On March 11, the U.S. president announced a 30-day ban on travelers entering from Italy and most other European countries. 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?
Governments, global health entities, and medical organizations around the world are grappling with coronavirus, but nearly all predict that the virus will peak and eventually abate—though, no one can say for sure when. Our advice to travelers wishing to book their trips to Italy, even for the summer and beyond, is to wait a few weeks. The lockdown is in place until April 3, at which time the government will assess the situation and determine whether it's safe to resume normal life and activities and what further measures are needed. Until then, keep researching the best places to visit in Italy and planning that dream trip—Italy will be back on its feet before you know it.