Italy to quarantine millions around Venice and Milan

Dmitry ZAKS
1 / 2

Tourist favourites such as Milan's Piazza Duomo have already been emptied by the coronavirus outbreak

Tourist favourites such as Milan's Piazza Duomo have already been emptied by the coronavirus outbreak (AFP Photo/Piero CRUCIATTI)

Rome (AFP) - Italy prepared Saturday to quarantine more than 10 million people around the financial capital Milan and the tourist mecca Venice for nearly a month to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.

A draft government decree published by Italy's Corriere Della Sera newspaper and other media said movement into and out of the regions would be severely restricted until April 3.

It was not clear from either the decree or the reports as to when the measure would go into effect.

Corriere Della Sera said it was "imminent" -- and that those who violated the measures could be jailed.

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

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

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.

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 metre (three feet) apart.

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

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.

- Coalition leader gets virus -

Ministers decided at an all-night emergency meeting that broke up early Saturday to call in retired doctors as part of an effort to bolster the strained healthcare system with 20,000 additional staff.

The head of the Italian ruling coalition's junior partner became the latest high-profile figure to confirm they had been infected.

"I am fine," the Democratic Party's Nicola Zingaretti said on Facebook. "I will have to stay at home for the next few days."

The accelerating spread of the illness has already emptied Italian train stations and Rome's normally busy streets.

Many of the city's outdoor restaurants and cafes were either closed on Saturday night or had free tables overseen by forlorn staff with little to do but chat.

"The situation here in Rome really is catastrophic," city guide Francesca Sposito told AFP outside the Colosseum.

But the government's most immediate concern is that northern virus-hit regions might start to run out of hospital beds.

Milan's Lombardy region "is facing a tense situation," civil protection service chief Berrelli told reporters.