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Ravaged by the coronavirus, Italy tiptoes shakily toward reopening economy

Politicians and experts warn that Italy may not make a convincing model for other countries, because its death toll remains the highest in Europe.
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ROME — After five weeks under a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, Cristiano Barberi's children's clothing store was among the few Roman shops allowed to reopen last week. But what may have looked like much-needed relief brought more financial punishment.

"It's only for surviving," said Barberi, wearing a mask and rubber gloves outside his family-owned boutique in one of Rome's most fashionable neighborhoods, adding that he was opening to show "the people a new way, a new day."

Almost a century old, his I Vippini Roma children's clothing shop sells mostly handmade outfits. It had only a few customers on the day it reopened, and only one made a purchase.

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Barberi's tiny store and its customers are at the tip of the spear of Italy's delicate economic reopening, one that will be watched by the rest of the world as policymakers try to prevent the pandemic from becoming an economic catastrophe.

Image: Christiano Barberi
Cristiano Barberi's clothing store for children in Rome was among the few shops allowed to reopen.Bill O'Reilly / NBC News

Politicians, as well as medical and economic experts, warn that Italy may not make a convincing model for other countries — its death toll remains the highest in Europe, at 24,114, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some complain that Italy's planning for its "phase two" of the outbreak is still too little, too late.

"Come on, you need to have a plan," said Alessandro Vespignani, an Italian American physicist and expert on mathematical epidemiology at Northeastern University in Boston. "This is like everyone is talking about D-Day but they don't know if they have ships, soldiers or support. But all everyone is talking about is when is [the date] of D-Day."

Around two weeks before Italy is scheduled to reopen for business on May 3, an advisory task force of scientists, business and economy experts appointed by the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has yet to roll out a comprehensive plan to put Italians safely back to work. On Tuesday, Conte said that he was “confident” that he would be able to announce a plan for reopening the country by the end of this week.

The government describes this phase as the one in which Italians find a way to live with the virus — allowing people to return to work and use public transportation while still practicing social distancing, tracking personal associations and strengthening the health system to prepare for fresh outbreaks.

In Italy, as elsewhere, medical caution is colliding with hard economic realities. The heavily indebted country ranked among the least financially solvent in Western Europe even before the crisis, and recent estimates from the International Monetary Fund see Italy's economy contracting by more than 9 percent by the end of the year — the worst projection in Europe.

Even after Silvio Brusaferro, president of Italy's National Health Institute, said last week that the "contagion curve is dipping," the government is debating whether to extend the lockdown past May 3 over concerns of a viral rebound.

Image: Gianicolo Hill in Rome
A person sits next to a bike at Gianicolo Hill in Rome on Sunday.Alberto Lingria / Reuters

The debate over Italy's reopening has played out across familiar fault lines, pitting big business and industry against labor unions and the wealthy north against the much poorer south.

The government is tentatively planning to slowly reopen the economy in three stages across the north — by far the worst afflicted by the virus — the center and south of the country, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

Which businesses open first and how has become a central sticking point in the debate.

Children's clothing stores like Barberi's were allowed to open last week, along with bookstores, stationery stores and logging activities — counterintuitive categories that labor and industry leaders said were meant to prevent swarms of new customers.

"I think it's because children grow up," Barberi said about why his store was allowed to open so early. "If there was someone that was born in December or January, they finished their little dress."

Barberi's shop is among the 95 percent of Italian businesses that employ fewer than 10 employees. Those companies, less equipped to provide protection for their employees and typically more financially exposed, are among the most vulnerable to the virus.

But representatives of major industries in the automobile and garment sectors have been applying substantial pressure on the government to allow large factories to reopen.

Of particular concern are the "Made in Italy" brands — labels in fashion, food, furniture and mechanical engineering (mostly automobiles) that are largely for export and considered iconic.

The newspaper Corriere della Sera reported over the weekend that such businesses may be allowed to reopen before May 3.

"There is a real risk that these industries will be severely damaged," said a representative of Confindustria, the Italian employers' federation, which has been pushing hard to reopen big brands. "You can find ways to allow safe work. But you can't just stay at home ... because the social consequences can be really very, very serious."

The Confindustria representative argued that most new cases were transmitted within hospitals, private homes and nursing homes, not workplaces.

But epidemiologists have called such arguments misleading. While most patients who died from the disease are elderly and retired people, many probably contracted the virus from younger working people who carried few symptoms.

Labor unions have argued against returning to work while complaining that big business is prioritizing the economy over workers' safety.

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"There's a sort of contradiction between saying always 'stay at home, stay at home, stay at home,' but at the same time to tell workers to go to work without the security and conditions," said Gianna Fracassi, deputy secretary-general of the Italian General Confederation of Labor, Italy's main labor union.

Fracassi said that even after major industries had agreed with the government to keep the economy shut in public meetings Friday, they then privately lobbied the prime minister to reopen early.

The representative from Confindustria denied that industrial lobbies had disagreed with the government's decision to extend the lockdown.

But the arguments around the reopening point to an emerging realization about phase two: For many, in particular labor unions such as Fracassi's, it's less a new phase than a new reality.

"We will be in a different world, and we will need to be in a very different social and economic situation," Fracassi said. "We know that we are going to be different at the end of this story, which will be very long."