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Virus-hit Italy gets more isolated as nations restrict entry

ROME – Italians faced travel restrictions inside and outside the country Tuesday as nations near and far isolated Italy with flight bans and sweeping national measures went into effect in a bid to slow the coronavirus’ silent spread across the peninsula.

Police at Rome’s main train station checked commuters’ paperwork to ensure they had legitimate reasons to leave their residential neighborhoods for work, health or other “necessary” reasons. Carabinieri teams patrolled cafes to make sure owners were keeping customers 1-meter (yard) apart.

Internationally, Italy's status as the center of Europe's coronavirus outbreak grew even after the government on Monday extended limits on movement to the whole country to slow infections.

Malta and Spain announced a ban on air traffic from Italy. Malta turned away another cruise ship and British Airways canceled flights to the whole country. Austria barred travelers from crossing the border without a medical certificate. Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Germany strengthened travel advisories or flat-out urged their citizens to leave.

Even the Vatican erected a new barricade at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.

Italy now has more coronavirus cases than anywhere but China, registering 9,172 infections with 463 deaths. And officials say they expect many, many more.

”Get out of northern Italy if you’re there. We don’t know how long the Italian authorities will keep the window open,” said Erik Broegger Rasmussen, head of counsular services for Denmark’s foreign ministry.

The governor of northern Lombardy, the region hardest hit by the coronavirus, said Tuesday he will ask the government to tighten measures further after new data showed the contagion continuing to spread. Atilio Fontana told La7 private television that the mayors of the 12 provincial capitals had agreed to seek measures to close non-essential stores and shut down local public transport.

“It’s bad. People are terrorized,” said Massimo Leonardo, whose family has run a vegetable stand in Rome's Campo dei’ Fiori market since 1980. While some customers were stocking up on blood oranges and artichokes, others called him asking for home deliveries, fearful of going outside.

“I’ve never seen anything like it," he said.

Europe's airports say they expect 187 million fewer passengers this year due to the virus outbreak, which is “turning into a shock of unprecedented proportions for our industry.”

ACI Europe, which represents the sector, estimated Tuesday that the outbreak will mean a 13.5% drop in airport passengers in the first quarter alone. That translates to 1.32 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in lost revenue. Airports in Italy are most affected.

“What they are now bracing for is a total collapse in air connectivity and the prospect of losing most of their revenues,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe. He urged the Italian government to provide emergency financial support.

Ordinary Italians, though, appeared to be taking Premier Giuseppe Conte’s draconian new containment measures to heart and where possible, stayed home. The streets of Rome, the Italian capital, were as quiet Tuesday morning as during the country's annual mid-August vacation shutdown.

The SWG polling firm found Tuesday that Italians have finally realized the gravity of the virus, with nearly 55% “very concerned" compared to 37% a week ago.

"Let's say that I am reasonably worried,” said Juan Preto, a Spanish citizen who lives in Rome.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 115,800 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,000 have died.

The World Health Organization says people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while severe cases may last three to six weeks. In mainland China, where the outbreak emerged in December, almost three-fourths of its more than 80,000 patients have recovered.

In Rome, communications freelancer Brett Ashley Jackson said she woke up stunned at the surreal turn of events. She had spent the night in the the capital to catch a Tuesday flight to New York for an uncle's funeral, only to find it was abruptly canceled. She wondered how or if she could get home to her main residence in Lucca.

“This is life until April 3rd," she wrote to friends on Facebook. “Thanks for your concern and well-wishes. At least we're in a beautiful prison."

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