By Laura Serrano-Conde
Rome, Mar 21 (efe-epa).- The Italian government mandated a halt Saturday to all economic activity not essential to maintaining life and battling the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed nearly 5,000 lives in the country.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told a press conference that while “difficult,” the decision was necessary to “confront the most acute phase” of the pandemic in Italy.
The order, which will be in effect through April 3, applies to “all productive activities (that are) not necessary and indispensable to guarantee essential services,” he said, announcing the latest tightening of the nationwide quarantine his government imposed on March 10.
Supermarkets, pharmacies and banks will remain open, along with essential public services such as transportation, the prime minister said.
Saturday’s one-month anniversary of the detection of Italy’s first coronavirus cases brought the grim news that another 793 people suffering from Covid-19 died overnight, bringing the death toll to 4,825, while the number of those infected reached 42,681, an increase of 4,821 over the previous day.
“We are slowing Italy’s motor, but not stopping it,” Conte said, well aware that the worst-affected regions – Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, together represent 40 percent of gross domestic product.
The premier also weighed-in on the controversy spurred by the decision of the regional government of Veneto to shut down supermarkets on Sundays and holidays to avoid large concentrations of people.
Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister who heads one of the parties in the current coalition government, said that Sunday closings would lead to longer lines and bigger crowds the rest of the week, boosting the chance of contagion.
“There is no restrictions on the days supermarkets open. I invite everyone to remain calm. There is no need to arrive en masse and create long lines,” Conte said.
The prime minister acknowledged that “staying home is not easy,” while insisting it was the only way to save lives.
“Our sacrifice in staying home is minimal compared with that made by other citizens – hospital workers, members of the security forces, employees of supermarkets and public services. Men and women who don’t just go to work, but every day fulfill a act of great responsibility toward the nation,” Conte concluded.
The fatality figure reported Saturday is the largest one-day total so far and represents a substantial deterioration, though not as dramatic as the leap from the previous one-day high of 485 to the 627 new deaths reported Friday.
Earlier this week, Italy surpassed China – where the outbreak began – as the country with the most deaths from coronavirus.
Lombardy, the northern region that is home to a fifth of Italy’s 60 million people, accounts for more than half of all coronavirus deaths in the country and upwards of 52 percent of active cases.
On March 8, the Italian government imposed a quarantine on Lombardy and other Covid-19 “hot spots.” The restrictions, which were extended two days later to the entire country, included cancelation of public events, a ban on gatherings, the shutdown of non-essential businesses and a prohibition of inter-city travel except when absolutely necessary.
As the number of infections continued to climb at an accelerating rate, officials in the hardest-hit cities and territories demanded tougher measures from the central government.
Conte’s administration added new restrictions on Friday, ordering all parks, public gardens and playing fields closed and mandating that people venturing out to exercise remain close to their homes and maintain a minimum distance of a meter (3.2 ft) from others.
In addition, Italians who have vacation homes in the countryside are prohibited from traveling to those residences.
The median age of people who have died from Covid-19 is around 80 and most of those victims had underlying medical problems, national health institute director Silvio Brusaferro told a press conference.