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The lockdown at the time of COVID-19: the Italian experience

COVID-19 has paralyzed Italy in a way which is unprecedented at least in the very recent decades.

The measures adopted by the Italian government aimed at containing the spread of the virus have had a crescendo starting from the end of February 2020 - when “patient one” was discovered in Codogno, a small town a few kilometers south of Milan - up to around mid-March when the seriousness of the contagion and the consequences on the national health system became crystal clear. The average age of the population in Italy is very high, and seniors appear to have more difficulties in coping with the virus: this causes too many people in need of intensive care, and not enough units in hospitals.

While rushing to create more and more intensive care units in hospitals (health in Italy is a constitutional right), the government began introducing measures to reduce social contacts among the people with – at least initially – the aim to affect as less as possible the economy.

The lockdown – initially limited to the so-called “red area” around Codogno – has been extended to the entire nation since March 9; stricter measures were further introduced on March 11. Lombardia (the region of Milan), a few provinces of Emilia-Romagna and a few others in Veneto still being the center of the storm, the government rushed to try and avoid the spread the virus to the southern regions, less equipped to face the catastrophic consequences of the hospitalization of a large number of people.

The lockdown adopted on March 11 went stricter ten days later, when further measures were adopted regarding productive activities (whose stop was previously only suggested, and not required).

The end of the lockdown is at the moment scheduled for April 13, but it is obvious it may be further extended if the contagion is still at high level in mid-April.

The end of tunnel still appears too far, and the consequences are hard to identify even though downturn appears inevitable.

The measures currently in force

Three are the areas affected by the measures adopted by the government, and by some Regions: 

  1. Social distancing;
  2. Lockdown of retail activities, and of bars and restaurants;
  3. Lockdown of productive activities. 

1. Social distancing

People cannot leave their towns or not even get out of their homes unless for working, urgency or health reasons; if stopped by the police they need to justify the purpose of their being in another town either by showing a self-certification (whose text is provided by the Home Affairs Ministry) or orally to the police officer. The violation of this prohibition is punished with an administrative fine from Euro 400,00 up to Euro 3.000,00 (which replaced the initial criminal offence punished by article 650 of the criminal code with a fine of Euro 206,00 or the imprisonment up to three months)

While most of the population have complied with the new rules ever since their initial adoption on March 8 (for Lombardia, and other areas) and on March 9 for the entire nation, some others were mostly reluctant. For instance, many people gathered in the parks, or went running along the streets or in the parks. 

For this reason, many Regions decided it was time for a turn of the screw. Health in Italy is of competence of both the State and the Regions, the former dictating general guidelines, and the latter providing practical measures. In force of that principle many Regions have adopted stricter rules of conduct, which after some initial doubts were legitimated by a Law-Decree on March 25, 2020 by the government. 

Prohibition of gatherings and prohibition for quarantined people to leave their homes at all complete this overview. According to the Ordonnance of Regione Lombardia no. 514 of March 21, 2020 a gathering is when at least 2 people meet at a distance shorter than the safety one (1 meter); the violation of the prohibition to gather is punished with a fine of Euro 5.000,00. Finally, quarantined people who get out of their homes commit a criminal offence and are subject to imprisonment from 1 to 5 years.

So far (March 31) up to around 130.000 people were fined for disregarding the prohibition to get around only for well identified reasons. Italian people deeply enjoy social life, and social distancing appears as a task too hard for many of us.

The entire social life is put on hold.

Any social events whatsoever are not allowed. Museums, theaters, cinemas, pubs, discos, any other social venues are temporarily closed; ski facilities are closed as well. Sport events are not allowed, either. Masses and other religious events such as funerals are not allowed which leads to the unfortunate consequences that the many people who die for COVID-19 cannot have a memorial; churches are open but a mandatory distance of at least 1 meter is required. The violation of these prohibitions is a criminal offense, and is punished with a fine from Euro 400,00 up to Euro 3.000,00.

2. Lockdown of retail activities, and of bars and restaurants

Stores are all currently closed except for those selling food, medicaments, hygienic products, and a bunch of other categories of first necessity items, which are clearly identified in the Prime Minister Decree dated March 11. Bars and restaurants are closed as well. Hairdressers and beauticians are mandatorily closed as well. On the other side, banks are open as well as insurance offices. The government tried at the very beginning to simply limiting the opening of stores, bars and restaurants: certain stores were closed at weekends, and bars and restaurants had to close down at 6 pm. That was not enough to help reduce the contagion, and the government opted for the complete lockdown of most of the activities.

The lockdown of retail activities is creating a big dilemma. Retailers are mostly closed or if open they do not have a “normal” turn over (except probably for most supermarkets): are they required to pay the rent? Or do they have a right to suspend it? 

The answer is hard to give, as we are facing a situation alien to our normal life: in our era we have never had to face a civil war or other events which may constitute force majeure. As lawyers more involved in assisting retailers than landlords we are inclined to think that retailers should not pay the rent, because they are currently not taking advantage of the premises for a cause which is not attributable to them: there are law provisions which support this view. We may fail to see the full frame of the situation, and landlords may have different opinions. Still, COVID-19 appears to bring along a revolution in the market, which would probably register a reduction in rents unless landlords prefer to have empty premises.

3. Lockdown of productive activities 

More suffered than the lockdown of retail activities has been the lockdown of productive activities, which was established only on March 22. The reasons of this delayed reaction is clear and does not need much explanations: locking down productive activities means stopping the “engine” of economy.

Anyhow we got there, too, after the government had tried to avoid the extreme solution by suggesting remote work for anybody who can do this.

As of today, productive activities are prohibited unless they are included among those listed in the Prime Minister Decree of March 22, or whether they are in the production chain of the permitted activities: basically, entrepreneurs in the essential fields such as food, medical supplies, chemicals in general, power, vehicles, and so on (the exceptions are in the realm of 60). Still, when possible remote work needs to be the solution even in situations of permitted activities. The law also says that unnecessary departments need to stay closed, and that even permitted activities must observe the minimum safety prerequisites which were jointly discussed by the government and the unions in mid-March.

What about professionals? Are they allowed to go to the office, or should they stay at home? That was a sort of dilemma at least for a while in Lombardia and thus in Milan: as a matter of fact, the Prime Minister Decree of March 22 expressly allowed professional activities, but the Ordonnance of the Governor of Lombardia of March 21 expressly said the contrary. Any doubts were set apart with the Law Decree of March 25 which authorizes Regions to adopt stricter measures, and therefore sets forth the prevalence of the local law ordering professionals to close their offices. 

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The present situation is critical: streets and squares are empty, and apart from being the ideal set for some monument photographers they miss the spirit of Italy i.e. its people. Economy is essentially on hold.

What will come next? Hard to tell…