The Via Dante pedestrian street in downtown Milan on March 10, 2020. Italy imposed unprecedented national restrictions on its 60 million people on March 10, 2020, to control the deadly coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Miguel Medina

Italians were adapting Tuesday to the government’s new motto: “I’m staying at home,” with streets, squares and cafes eerily quiet as the government battles to contain Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

Milan’s famous Piazza del Duomo was almost totally deserted, with trams also running virtually empty through the city center.

On Rome’s central Piazza Venezia, where dozens of taxis would normally be waiting to ferry around tourists and locals alike, only two were taking fares on Tuesday morning.

Still on the capital’s roads was 48-year-old driver Andrea. He had finally found a mask, but said there was “barely any movement” anymore, and no fares to be had from tourists.

Only a handful of sightseers could be seen in Rome’s historic center, far fewer than would normally turn out in the crisp, early spring sunshine.

However, some Italians still considered their travel to be essential. There was normal traffic in evidence on Tuesday morning on the Via Cristoforo Colombo, one of the main arteries into the capital.

The measures announced late on Monday include limiting travel, halting public gatherings and sports competitions, as well as closing schools and universities across the country.

According to the government decree, travel is only meant to be for “urgent, verifiable work situations and emergencies or health reasons.”

‘Shock therapy’

The lockdown was dubbed “shock therapy” by the La Repubblica daily and some instances of panic buying were reported overnight after the government’s announcement.

In Rome and Naples queues were reported at 24-hour supermarkets, with customers stocking up on “potatoes, milk, sugar, flour and soap, as if in wartime,” the Ansa news agency reported.

Even three players from the Serie A Napoli football club were spotted amid the queues in Naples, with fans sharing pictures of them on social media.

In response, the government issued a statement on Tuesday morning clarifying its instructions: travel was still permitted for “normal needs, for example for food shopping,” it said.

“The closure of food stores is not planned,” the statement added. “Food supplies will be ensured as normal. It is unnecessary and above all against the spirit of the decree … to rush to buy food or other essential supplies,” it said.

Nevertheless, queues could still be seen at Rome supermarkets on Tuesday.

One of those venturing out, 85-year-old Grazia, said: “I’m not scared of anything in particular but there is a general worry. I put gloves on when I go out, I have masks but I’m not using them anymore – in any case you need the ones with the filters,” she added.

Signs of solidarity

Some have found other pressing reasons for leaving the house.

“My job would allow me to stay at home …,” said Simone, a 30-year-old clarinetist in Bologna’s Municipal Theatre Orchestra. “But I prefer to go to the theater because at the moment there is nobody, I’m practically alone.

“And besides, since my neighbors are all at home, they all complain when I play music,” he added.

But despite the complications of the new arrangements, there has also been evidence that the situation is bringing out Italians’ better nature. 

In one apartment block in Rome’s Trastevere quarter, there was a note offering help to elderly residents with shopping or any other errands, with a phone number to call.