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Coronavirus: Italy pushes to contain COVID-19 outbreak as cases top 10,000

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The boisterous hum of Rome dwindled to a whisper and police patrols kept people apart in cafes as Italy enforced an extraordinary, sweeping lockdown in hopes of not becoming the next epicenter of the spreading coronavirus epidemic now that life in China is edging back to normal.

Infections in Italy topped the 10,000 mark — more than anywhere but China — and the number of deaths from the virus rose Tuesday to 631 from 463 a day earlier, Italian Civil Protection authorities said.

Police across the country patrolled cafes to ensure owners kept customers 1 metre (3 feet) apart during daylight hours and then enforced a strict 6 p.m. closure order.

“It’s bad. People are terrorized,” said Massimo Leonardo, who runs a market stall. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 119,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,200 have died.

By encouraging many of Italy’s 62 million people to stay home and further drying up what was left of the country’s already battered tourism industry, the lockdown could increase the likelihood of a recession, dealing another blow to reeling global markets.

Italy’s economy, the third-largest of the 19 countries that use the euro currency, relies heavily on industries requiring the physical presence and proximity of workers: tourism, manufacturing, and retail.

Italians shouldn’t leave home unless for work, health care or “necessities” such as grocery shopping, the premier’s office said. Early closures of shops, cafes and restaurants amounted to a seismic restriction in a country that prizes its gastronomy, luxuries and cafe culture.

“I’ll do whatever they tell me to do,” Rome florist Stefano Fulvi said. “If I have to close, I’ll close.”

Italy also found itself increasingly sealed off as other countries sought to keep infections contained.

Malta and Spain announced a ban on air traffic from Italy. British Airways and Air Canada suspended all Italy flights. Austria barred travellers from crossing the border without a medical certificate. Slovenia closed its border with Italy, and Albania banned Italy air and ferry traffic. Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Germany strengthened travel advisories and urged their citizens to leave. Even the Vatican erected a new barricade at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.

“Get out of northern Italy if you’re there,” said Erik Broegger Rasmussen, head of consular services for Denmark’s foreign ministry.

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