Italy's South Tyrol invokes autonomy to pry open lockdown

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A young hairdresser and a customer wearing face masks and gloves to protect against the coronavirus in a salon in Brixen, Italy, Monday, May 11, 2020. The northern Italian province of South Tyrol is moving ahead of policies by the central government, reopening restaurants and shops closed during the coronavirus crisis earlier than planned by Rome. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

BOLZANO – The blazing orange letters of fire spelled out a familiar message in Italy’s South Tyrol province, an old call to resistance repurposed for the days of the coronavirus: ‘’Los von Rom’’ and ‘’Freiheit,’’ German for ‘’Away from Rome’’ and ‘’Freedom.’’

In decades past, the words ignited on a mountainside demanded independence from Rome’s rule for the province’s German-language majority. Now, they vent discontent in South Tyrol, which was once part of Austria, with the uncompromising and indiscriminate lockdown imposed by the Italian government to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Spurred by economic pressure, the provincial governor defied Rome this week and reasserted South Tyrol’s cherished autonomy, allowing restaurants, hair salons, tattoo parlors and museums to reopen Monday -- well ahead of the timetable set by Italy’s government.

‘’We have a relatively positive situation regarding the epidemic, with a rate of contagion the lowest in Italy,’’ said Gov. Arno Kompatscher, whose South Tyrolean People’s Party has controlled the province since 1948. The party’s legislators in the national parliament back Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s government.

‘’We appreciated the actions of the government in the phase of emergency, where it was necessary to move in a united way,” Kompatscher said. “But we are very proud and jealous of our autonomy.’’

While the rest of Italy watched with a mix of envy and curiosity, South Tyroleans wearing masks could browse shops again for items such as a tablecloth needed for a gift, have piercings changed by appointment and visit a hairdresser for a long-overdue haircut.

They sat in Walther Square, near Bolzano’s Duomo, and ate lunch at the prescribed 2-meter (over 6 foot) distance or drank coffee in bars outfitted with Plexiglas safety screens.

Despite the province’s bold stance, some business owners demurred to Rome -- for now.