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  • CNS Rome Bureau: Adapting to life, and work, in a lockdown

    ROME — The Italian government has declared the entire country a "red zone" for the coronavirus epidemic, asking everyone to stay home. But people may leave their homes to buy groceries, go to the pharmacy and go to work "if necessary."

    What is "necessary" was not strictly defined, so the six members of the Catholic News Service Rome Bureau just tried to be smart, safe and socially responsible.

    Announcing the lockdown March 9 and again at a news conference March 11, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte asked people to proceed with "great attention and a sense of responsibility," because the priority is to protect the health of everyone in the country, especially the elderly, who are particularly at risk.

    While people may take calculated risks with their own health, it is irresponsible and un-Christian to put themselves in a situation of unknowingly passing the virus to others.

    Members of the Rome Bureau already worked remotely March 6 after an electrical fire at a utility junction away from the office fried the internet connection to the whole building. When the lockdown was announced, we just kept going.

    Working remotely — sometimes very remotely — is nothing new for us. We do it all the time, for example, on papal trips; on the road with the pope, we have the added complication of serious time pressures and iffy internet connections.

    The lockdown did not turn Rome into a ghost town, although tourist spots have been abandoned and St. Peter's Square is closed.

    Dog owners still take their pets outside, and many people try to get out at least once a day to stretch their legs, but always with attention to staying at least a yard away from anyone else.

    Buses and trams are running on a reduced schedule, but drivers have been ordered to skip stops when the number of passengers makes it impossible for them to stay a yard apart.

    At 8:30 a.m. March 11, the second full day of the lockdown, the usually full 23 and 280 buses running down the main road along the Tiber River were mostly empty, and several of the passengers were wearing masks.

    The neighborhood open-air fruit and vegetable markets were open and well-stocked. At the San Cosimato market March 10, a stall owner told me the warehouses were full and sales would continue as long as the government permitted. (Conte said March 11 that more restrictive measures could come if the number of infected people continued to climb.)

    Some shops and coffee bars, especially in tourist neighborhoods, are closed, but most are open with a sign posted at the door insisting that customers must stay one meter (about a yard) apart. In several Rome neighborhoods, there were reports March 10 and 11 of lines of people waiting to get into grocery stores a few at a time.

    However, all shops, restaurants and bars must close at 6 p.m. That is unusual in a city where dinnertime begins at 8 p.m.

    La Renella, the most popular place to buy bread in my Trastevere neighborhood, closed its doors March 11. But it opened its window and is doing a brisk business from the street.

    Schools and universities throughout Italy have been closed since March 5 because of the epidemic, creating all sorts of complications for parents.

    Of course, many grandparents stepped in. Near the San Cosimato market March 10, I saw a woman walking with her grandchildren, a girl of about 4 and a boy of about 3. I overheard her, in the sweetest voice, say to them, "Those who don't wash their hands die."

    She went on, in a fairy-tale telling voice, to say that the coronavirus is a "monster," but "we can kill him. Do you know how?" The children dutifully responded, "Washing our hands."

    The school-based WhatsApp chat groups for Italian moms are known for being super-, even hyperactive. And they went into overdrive when the schools closed.

    Our office administrator said the theater group at her children's school has started a Facebook group with videos for the little ones. And the moms' group sent around a suggestion that parents and children draw or paint a rainbow on a big piece of paper or even a bedsheet, write on it, "Everything will be fine," and hang it from the balcony to "unleash a wave of positivity."

    © Arlington Catholic Herald 2020