Italy was the first European country to feel the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, and Italians had hoped to be first on the continent to be able to return to normal life. But the country is witnessing some alarming viral spikes — the danger of which is being underscored by the rising number of celebrities and politicians testing positive.
Former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has become the latest high-profile Italian to test positive. A spokesman for his center-right Forza Italia party said that two tests had come back positive, but that Berlusconi doesn’t feel unwell and has no fever and “is continuing to work from his home in Arcore,” his estate near Milan.
Two of Berlusconi's children, Luigi and Barbara, also have tested positive.
Berlusconi, who turns 84 at the end of the month, is suspected of contracting the virus while vacationing at his luxury property on the island of Sardinia. That’s where he met with friends, who subsequently tested positive, including businessman Flavio Briatore, the former managing director of the Benetton Formula One racing team. Briatore was briefly hospitalized in Milan, and his Sardinian nightclub was closed last month after several employees also tested positive for coronavirus.
Public health officials are blaming spikes in cases last month on nightclub attendance and social gatherings, as well as on Italians returning from overseas vacations. Six hundred new infections were recorded Saturday, almost 800 on Sunday, and the daily tally of new cases has continued to rise with 1,326 fresh cases recorded Wednesday. These are numbers not seen since early May when the country was still under lockdown, according to the country’s Health Ministry.
The Italian government has moved to tighten restrictions and has made the wearing of masks compulsory when out in public in the evening and overnight. The rise in Italian cases is alarming public health officials in some other European countries. The Norwegian Institute of Public Health has recommended Italy be added to the foreign ministry's list of red countries, which would mean Norwegian vacationers having to quarantine for 10 days on returning from Italian holidays.
Last month, some Italian regions introduced quarantine requirements on residents returning from vacations in Greece, Spain, Croatia and Malta.
The jump in cases are largely in the north, Italy’s original viral epicenter, but are also being experienced elsewhere in the country, which is especially alarming for officials and ordinary Italians as the country tries to prepare for the reopening of Italy's schools, planned for September 14. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the Italian news agency ANSA that the reopening was his government's “top priority.” The government is holding talks with regional authorities and teachers about guidelines that need to be adopted, including on the practical challenges of restarting public school transportation.
Italian schools closed in early March. Italy's health minister, Roberto Speranza, tweeted Monday, “The right to health and the right to education must go hand in hand.” His tweet coincided with the announcement of the closure of one of the biggest high schools in the north of the country. The Cobianchi school in Verbania had been holding catch-up classes but closed after a teacher tested positive.
Under guidelines for the reopening, students won’t have to wear masks while at their desks if they are kept at least a meter apart from each other. But masks will have to be worn by children over the age of six moving around school buildings. The government has supplied more than 2 million single-occupant desks and has plans to provide millions of masks and nearly 200,000 liters of hand sanitizer every week. “It will be a tough year," Education Minister Lucia Azzolina said this week.
Frustrations have been building in recent weeks, with older Italians complaining the young are not observing mask-wearing rules and not keeping their distance from each other. Last month, a nurse in the Italian capital, Rome, unleashed a tirade on social media, attacking those who downplay the virus or deny its existence. Marco Bellafiore, who works at Rome's Umberto I Hospital, one of the capital’s main public clinics, criticized those who ignore coronavirus restrictions.
“Come here and tell me everything is ok, that there is no COVID, that tonight we'll go dancing,” he said. “It is us, not you” sweating in a “sauna suit in 30 degrees,” he added.