Italy backlash widens over virus rules as infections leap again

·2 min read
Restaurant owners laid out place settings on the street in front of the Pantheon as part of a protest against coronavirus closures
Restaurant owners laid out place settings on the street in front of the Pantheon as part of a protest against coronavirus closures

Business owners and opposition politicians in Italy rebelled on Wednesday against the latest virus restrictions, even as the country registered a record number of daily cases for the second consecutive day.

Thousands of chefs and restaurateurs joined rallies in 24 cities, the business federation that organised the nationwide protest said, as frustration simmered over rules forcing restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses to close their doors at 6:00 pm.

Far-right and nationalist politicians ramped up their attacks on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, accusing him of sacrificing the economy for measures that will not save Italy from the virus.

As he struggled to quell the anger late on Tuesday, Conte announced a package of tax cuts and support for the most affected businesses worth more than five billion euros ($5.9 billion).

Conte has stressed he wants to avoid another national shutdown, but the country again smashed its record for daily cases on Wednesday, logging 24,991 infections.

And warnings were growing that the health systems in some cities were starting to struggle. 

- Hospitals 'are collapsing' -

Protests in several cities have turned violent in recent days with the interior ministry blaming football hooligans, activists from far-right and left, and other elements.

But Wednesday saw peaceful demonstrations in cities across the country.

In Rome, politicians of all stripes including far-right leader Matteo Salvini flocked to the chefs' protest, keen to get on side with the burgeoning movement -- even as its leaders insisted it was politically neutral.

"There is no health benefit from the closure of bars and restaurants, only economic disadvantage," said Salvini from the protest sidelines, a day after he threatened to mobilise officials belonging to his opposition League party against the new restrictions.

Regional leaders were already working to undermine the national regulations brought in just two days ago, with Sicily announcing it intended to extend opening hours for bars and restaurants.

"What is the point of preventing us from leading an almost normal life until the possible arrival of lockdown," asked Sicily President Nello Musumeci, saying local officials had the power to push back closing time until 10:00 pm if they chose.

While those calling for lighter restrictions sharpened their criticism, health experts were urging more severe curbs -- particularly in hard-hit northern regions.

"The hospitals in Milan are collapsing, there is no more room for patients," said Maurizio Viecca, head of cardiology at Sacco di Milano hospital, a day after a government health adviser had called for Milan's Lombardy region to be locked down.

"Go on like this, you risk dying in an ambulance or at home, as happened in the spring."

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