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Italy goes Red again: Status report from Florence

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Hello everyone! I’ve just finished recording my first podcast (!!!!) so now you have two ways to get news from my adventures. I won’t always pair the blog with the podcast but this one was rather complicated and involved lots of statistics and quotes, so I decided to draw up a full transcript. So feel free to read it all here, or head over to my new podcast to listen! There should be a way to subscribe to the podcast but I’m still figuring all of this out. So here goes…!

Today I’m not coming to you with another hike or museum visit, but unfortunately with news about about Italy’s new lockdown measures. Starting today, March 15, half of the country is in the highest “red” zone while the rest is somewhere in “orange,” except for the lucky people on the island of Sardinia who are an enviable WHITE.

Yesterday I got an Instagram “memory” that showed my video from last year of people in my neighborhood on their balconies clapping for healthcare workers, and it seemed like a dream. We were all so scared, but also caught up in the novelty of it: what’s happening? How long will this last? In fact, exactly one year ago I wrote the following:

“Hello from the Pandemic! It’s Day 8 of lockdown and I decided to start keeping a Lockdown Diary, not only “for posterity” but also because this is starting to wear me down, and I realize we have TWO MORE WEEKS TO GO.”

Ha ha! (hilarious.)

So, what’s going on now? The cases are rising at an alarming rate here, with tests revealing 70% of cases are the new British variant. As of this weekend, there have been over 3 million Covid cases in Italy with just over 100,000 deaths (out of a total population of about 60 million). Tuscany has seen almost 5,000 deaths and we’re reporting around 1,300 new cases per day. So the whole country is a patchwork of color-coding: Rome is now red, while Tuscany is “orange” but with pockets of “red” (Florence is orange, for example, while the neighboring city of Prato is red). In both cases we’re not allowed to leave our city limits and restaurants are open for take-out only, and of course there is a strict mask mandate nationwide. And in order to preempt a potential spike over Easter -- one of the biggest holidays here -- the entire nation will go red for Easter weekend.

Nobody is happy to have to go back into lockdown again, but the key difference between now and last March is that at least now we’re allowed to go outside for exercise. A year ago we were only allowed to walk within a few hundred meters of our house, and police cars drove around the neighborhood issuing €400 fines if they caught you away from home. I’d never experienced that before, a climate of fear, fear of police surveillance, fear of your own neighbors – dubbed “sceriffe dei balconi” – balcony sheriffs, with your nosy neighbor shaking her fist at you and yelling down “what part of ‘Stay Home’ don’t you understand!?” I remember seeing footage of drones flying over the banks of the Arno river to spot anyone jogging in secret, and if they saw anyone they’d send a motorcycle cop to chase them down. Now at least, in the Orange zones, we’re allowed to go out and exercise (alone) as long as it’s in our city limits, but I heard that yesterday in Florence’s big Cascine Park they had police patrolling in cars and and on horseback, and even plainclothes cops walking around to make sure everybody was obeying the law! So we’re all still pretty spooked.

People out walking along the banks of the Arno, which was off-limits last spring

For the most part people are obedient and try to do their best, but of course there are plenty of scofflaws. And for a lot of us the shock of last year’s harsh lockdown has led to a heightened appreciation of nature. The other day I was talking to some new friends and eventually we all started relating our coping mechanisms for trying to get outside. I’d put on my backpack and pretend I was walking to the supermarket but instead found a way to duck into a section of woods where I could sit on the trunk of a big oak tree and listen to the birds. Another friend, who lives in one of the old buildings in the center, didn’t have a balcony and only had one hour of direct sun per day! She and her 2 cats would wait for it every day and then go bask in it until it passed. Another friend said she donned a hat and glasses and snuck around, pretending to be throwing away her recycling. It’s really amazing, actually, to see how low the bar for acceptance has now been set: restaurants closed? Masks? Distancing? Who cares. I just want to be able to LEAVE MY HOUSE.

Police patrolling the city's public squares to prevent crowding

As for vaccines, it’s pretty much a disaster. So far Italy has only vaccinated about 7% of its population (much lower than the US and in Britain). They started with the essential workers and now they’re moving on with the OVER-90 population! This is due mainly to a botched roll-out by the drug companies who promised us many more doses than they could deliver. I went to the Italian health services website last week to see what the situation was, and read that the country should expect to have 70% of the population covered by May… 2022!!!! But that same day the E.U. approved the use of the J&J vaccine, so the new estimate is 80% vaccinated by this coming September. But who knows.

So the mood over here is pretty glum, and I read a recent article about this very topic in Britain’s “The Guardian” newspaper, which opens with the sentence: “After a year of death and solitude, Italy is a sober, serious place.” While this may be true, I am an optimist and always try to see a silver lining, where possible. This year has brought devastation to so many but it has also brought moments of solidarity, of calm, and a stillness that has allowed me to really see and appreciate the beauty around me. I think it’s made all of us see our lives in a different way, and hopefully this change will lead to a better world to come. We’ve already seen some positive changes here in Florence, and I’ll get to those in a minute.

But first, here are some statistics that I got from the “Corriere della Sera” newspaper:

* Italy’s GDP fell last year by almost 9% and we’re not expecting a full recovery until probably 2023.

* Unemployment is officially at 9%, but that’s basically an artificial number given the govt measures in place preventing anyone from being fired. An astounding one in three Italian contract workers are being covered by the “Cassa Integrazione,” a fund that pays a portion of a worker’s salary when the employer can’t and would be forced to fire their employees. The Cassa in 2020 spent a whopping 20 times more than in a normal year, and paid some €4 billion to 7 million workers (so: during this past year, these workers aren’t FIRED but they’re not allowed to work either, so it’s obviously just a band-aid and leaves the workers with no agency).

The worst hit were young people and women. Of the 450,000 jobs that were lost last year, 70% were held by women, since they make up most of the service and hospitality industries. It’s estimated that almost 300,000 small businesses are at serious risk of going under, and The Bank of Italy is anticipating 2,800 bankruptcies in the coming year, with another 3,700 to follow once the govt pulls the plug on their life support. And once the Cassa stops protecting those 7 million workers, we can expect to lose over a million jobs (… mine probably among them). In short, the situation isn’t looking good.

One bright side in all of this is that savings went up from 9 to 16%, so hopefully when the world gets back to normal, people will have more money to put back into the economy. As for spending, travel was badly hit and was down 63%; hotels and leisure activities lost almost 50%, and not surprisingly, Tour Operators and Travel Agencies were hurt the worst, with a drop of 73%. And across the globe, it is estimated that between 100 to 120 million tourism jobs are gone or at risk [from the World Tourism Organization].

So in my personal case, I took a direct hit.… hence the podcast! Ha ha ha.

Empty chairs in the normally jam-packed Greek island of Mykonos, an empty Campo dei Fiori in Rome, and an empty in arcade in popular Varenna, on the shores of Lake Como

Alright, so enough doom and gloom. Let’s talk about what good might come of all of this. As you all know, the boom in global tourism was starting to crush many of the world’s most beautiful destinations: cities like Venice, Florence, Dubrovnik and Barcelona (just to name a few) were being overrun by tourists, and once “off the beaten track” destinations like the Cinque Terre were almost unbearable for the massive crowds. So this respite from the tour buses, cruise ships, and selfie sticks has meant that a lot of communities have been able to reevaluate the way they’d like to run things.

Deserted beach in Monterosso, Cinque Terre

Florence, for example, had only 5 million visitors last year, compared to 15 million in 2019. In the absence of the constant crowds, we’ve repaved pot-holed streets, added electric trams, planted 2,000 new trees, and expanded the city’s bike paths so people can have a “greener” commute. The city also saw a 20% reduction of greenhouse gases and there are ambitious plans to reduce even more in the future.

Florence streets, empty of tourists

In fact, Florence had already been designated a “Smart City,” as part of a European push to improve energy efficiency, sustainable mobility, and technological services. It’s one of three cities involved in a project called “Replicate,” along with San Sebastian in Spain and Bristol in the U.K. Their aim is to “increase the quality of life for citizens across Europe by demonstrating the impact of innovative technologies.” You can read more specifically about the Florence here.

The pandemic also led to a huge increase in people working from home, which the Italians call “Smart Working,” which is up a massive 82%. This in turn has led to an increase in online activity, which gave a much-needed boost to Italy’s engagement with the digital world. Florence was actually just ranked the #1 “digital city” in Italy, with more online access to public services, apps for public utilities, more public wifi networks, and “smart” technologies. It’ll take a while before this technology reaches the entire country, but it’s still a step in the right direction.

And here is the new “Official Tourism website of the Metropolitan City and of the Municipality of Florence,” which you can peruse online or even get the app. Cameras around the city can even monitor the size of crowds in various places and recommend a destination that has fewer people! See:

One thing that the pandemic has made exceedingly clear is that a city cannot rely on tourism alone. In fact, tourism accounts for only 10% of Florence’s GDP and yet almost the entire city center is devoted to it, from hotels to restaurants to souvenir shops. In recent years the city’s population has actually dropped, as tens of thousands of Florentines have left because it’s too expensive, too crowded, or just too difficult to get around. This has happened in cities throughout Europe, leaving historical centers mere shells of what they used to be, with family homes being subdivided and transformed into B&Bs and student housing. Hardware stores have given way to souvenir shops, and fresh pasta places have turned into fast-food joints. So there is tremendous interest now in making the city center less tourism-dependent and more of a real home for local residents. There’s also a push to encourage young artisans to practice their craft and open workshops, and for businesses to rely on local industries. Dolce & Gabbana, for example (both of whom are from Florence), staged a fashion show in the city last September whose theme was “ri-nascita” or Renaissance (= “re-birth” in French). They have a factory 25 km south of Florence that employs 400 people, and they work with 38 regional artisans, so they provide a welcome boost to local manufacturing. There’s a big push to encourage people to support the “Made in Italy” label, and in this case, “Made in Tuscany.”

Another amazing project that I just heard about (shout-out to my friend Rosemary!) are the innovative ideas coming from the head of the Uffizi Gallery, Eike Schmidt. They’re planning to take some of the overflow from the Uffizi’s collection and show them in museums throughout Tuscany. This will help relieve the crush of tourists in Florence and help spread the wealth to other communities. There’s even a plan to create bicycle routes connecting these venues. Schmidt says, “We want to blend cultural tourism with nature tourism and athletic tourism. It is healthier and more fun, and better for the earth.” And in order to drum up more interest with a younger crowd, the Uffizi is now on TikTok! (find them at @uffizigalleries)

And this just in, The Sunday Times (of London) just published an article this weekend called “Forward-thinking Florence enjoying a mini Renaissance:

Italy’s ‘most perfect city’ is gently moving with the times, with renovated hotels, freshly unveiled treasures and a renewed focus on the outdoors.” It’s behind a paywall so I can’t read the article, but I assume it’s saying all of things that I just did!

After 25 years in the tourism business, I can honestly say that the boom in mass (and crass) tourism has been seriously disheartening. I’m of course glad that people want to travel, but if their main interest is taking a selfie and not really SEEING the places they visit, it’s not only a shame for them but it’s ruining the very places that everyone wants to see. So I for one would be very happy to see even a slight change in the way people travel. We need to slow down, have respect for the places we visit, and care more about the destination than about our Instagram stories.

So does this mean we’ve seen the last of belching tour buses and the throngs of people pouring off of cruise ships? I don’t think so. It’ll be hard to say No to that kind of money, but this is an amazing moment for cities like mine to hit the re-set button and reevaluate their priorities.

[I just read a review of a new book that slams the tourism industry for being one of the most destructive to our planet. You can see the review here. It begins: “It took a global pandemic for many of us to realize that we live in what Italian journalist and social theorist Marco D’Eramo calls the 'Age of Tourism.'... Tourism was an $8.8 trillion business in 2018... upon which… 'a galaxy of institutions and businesses' depend, from hotels and restaurants to 'the mock Gladiators who charge for photos in front of the Colosseum.' When the pandemic struck, flights were canceled and cities emptied, revealing just how reliant we all are on those strange creatures: tourists.”]

And finally, speaking of the Renaissance, some historians claim that it was precisely the devastation of the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages that led to the Renaissance. The exceedingly high death toll (50% of the population of Europe!) led to a labor shortage, which then led to increased workers’ leverage against the noble classes, who also suffered a heavy financial loss. This led to greater power among the guilds, a weakening of the feudal system, and renewed interest in science and medicine. And just as with myself and my friends, a new appreciation for nature and art, which blossomed into the artistic revolution of the Renaissance. See this fascinating article about how “The Black Death (1347-1350) … not only shook Italian society but transformed it... [and] marked an end of an era. Its impact was profound, resulting in wide-ranging social, economic, cultural, and religious changes. These changes, directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history.”

So with that thought, I’m wondering what new Renaissance might be awaiting us? Maybe a reevaluation of our relationship to nature. Maybe a greater appreciation of

our friends and family. Maybe a change in the way we treat animals. I really hope something good comes out of the sacrifices we have all made this past year, and I’m ready to help create a more sustainable form of tourism once I can get back to work, which hopefully will be soon!

Thanks for stopping by! I’ll be back next week with something a little lighter 😊

Arrivederci, e a presto!

Bye, and see you soon

Florence's Duomo & Baptistry, all to myself!

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2 commenti

Claire, you are a natural! Your first podcast is great!! Full of interesting and relevant information - I love how you focus on the positive things! And all that in a lively tone and pace! Looking forward to the next one! 😀

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Claire Duiker
Claire Duiker
15 mar 2021
Risposta a

Thank you!!! It was a pretty serious topic but I wanted to do it justice and really try to explain the feeling here. Yes, times are tough, but they're also beautiful. See you soon somewhere!

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