Italy closes schools, adopts radical virus containment steps


Italy announced a nationwide closing of its schools until March 15 as it redoubles efforts to curb the worst outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic in Europe.

The shutdown of schools and universities, which started Thursday, will further hit an economy that’s expected to contract sharply in coming months. Adding to the disruption, the government adopted a raft of further measures including a ban of public conferences and cultural events.

The outbreak threatens to plunge Italy and France into a recession and, if it were to last, could ignite a “vicious circle” of declining markets, the European Commission warned. European Union finance chiefs said they are prepared to take concerted action during an emergency call earlier Wednesday.

The decision came after Italian emergency chief Angelo Borrelli reported an additional 28 deaths, bringing the total to 107. The number of coronavirus cases increased to 3,089 from 2,502 on Tuesday in an outbreak that has crippled activity in the rich northern regions.

“It is a prudent decision to contain the virus because we have a health-care system at risk of being overloaded,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a statement Wednesday. “We have a problem with intensive and sub-intensive care.”

Under a decree signed by Conte late Wednesday night and seen by Bloomberg, sports competitions are suspended, cinemas and theaters closed, and people accompanying patients are banned from waiting in hospital emergency rooms. Elderly people are advised to avoid leaving home and to keep away from crowded areas.

An annex to the decree lists 11 hygiene recommendations including: avoid hugs and handshakes, wash your hands often, stay at least a meter away from other people, cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and wear a protective mask only if you believe you may be ill or if you are helping someone who is ill.

The measures will further hit a country already heading into recession before the virus outbreak. The government is studying a stimulus package worth 3.6 billion euros ($4 billion) and, according to an official, is ready to push its deficit above 2.4% of gross domestic product.

Italy’s action follows similar measures taken by Japan, which is enforcing a complete school shutdown due to last until April, and Hong Kong.As many as 8.7 million children and students are affected from kindergarten to high schools, as well as their families. Many in the afflicted regions, from Milan to Venice and Bologna, are already confined at home. Schools in Northern Italy have been closed since Feb. 24.

Closing schools “may not seem to have major macro consequences, but it raises the possibility of workforce problems at business due to parents’ need to take care of children,” Marco Protopapa, an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a note. If containment measures are extended, “the impact on gross domestic product could be large, even accounting for further fiscal support.”

To mitigate the impact, the government may allow one parent to stay at home to look after children, Finance Vice Minister Laura Castelli said.

“The virus is severely testing our health facilities and we need to limit children getting together,” said Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at Milan University. “Closing schools is a necessary measure because it will help limit the spread.”