ROME (NYTIMES, AFP, REUTERS) - Italy's government early on Sunday (March 8) took the extraordinary step of locking down much of the country's north, restricting movement for about a quarter of the Italian population in regions that serve as the country's economic engine.
The travel bans will prevent the free movement of roughly 16 million people and comes after the number of coronavirus cases in Italy, Europe's worst-hit country, leapt by more than 1,200 in a 24-hour period, according to the Civil Protection Agency.
The number of cases in the country rose to 5,883 on Saturday (March 7) from 4,636 announced on Friday. This is the biggest daily rise since the epidemic began two weeks ago, meaning that contagion is showing little sign of slowing down.
Deaths were up 36 to 233, the head of the agency, Angelo Borrelli, told a news conference.
The quarantine move represents the most sweeping effort outside China to stop the spread of the coronavirus and is tantamount to sacrificing the Italian economy in the short term to save it from the ravages of the virus in the long term.
By taking such tough measures, Italy sent a signal that restrictive clampdowns at odds with some of the core values of Western democracies may be necessary to contain and defeat the virus.
"We are facing an emergency," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in announcing the government decree in a news conference after 2am local time (9am Singapore time).
He called the measures "very rigorous" but necessary to contain the contagion and ease the burden on Italy's strained health care system. He said there would now be an "obligation" to avoid any movement "in and out of the territory, and also within" the locked-down areas.
Any such travel will require special permission for health or work reasons. "This is the moment of self-responsibility," he said.
Questions immediately emerged about exactly how the new rules would be enforced, especially as local leaders in the north complained that they had been given little notice or say in the decision making.
The measures will turn stretches of Italy's wealthy north - including the economic and cultural capital of Milan and landmark tourist destinations such as Venice - into quarantined enclaves. Conte did not say how long the restrictions would last, but an earlier draft weighed by the government on Saturday night said the decree would be in force until at least April 3.
Conte also announced early on Sunday that the government would extend less restrictive measures previously imposed in the north, such as the closure of museums, movie theaters, discos and betting parlors, to the rest of the country.
Funerals and cultural events are all banned under the measures. Police officers and soldiers will be empowered to enforce containment measures. Churches could remain open, but Masses will be cancelled.
The 11 provinces affected are those around Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia and Rimini in the region of Emilia-Romagna - Venice, Padua and Treviso in the region of Veneto - Asti and Alessandria in Piedmont - and the province of Pesaro and Urbino in the central region of Marche.
All schools and universities will be closed in Lombardy and the listed provinces until at least April 3. This week, the government announced schools all over the country would be closed until March 15.
The disease was first confirmed in Italy 15 days ago and is focused on a handful of hotspots in the north but cases have now been confirmed in each of the country's 20 regions, with deaths recorded in eight of them.
On Friday, the government approved a plan to employ up to 20,000 new doctors and nurses to respond to the emergency.
Data showed that the northern regions of Lombardia, Emilia Romagna and Veneto were the hardest hit, representing 85 per cent of national cases overall and 92 per cent of recorded deaths.
"We will win this battle if our citizens adopt a responsible attitude and change their way of living," Borrelli said.
In the worst-affected areas, Italy's hospitals are under growing strain. The number of patients in intensive care rose to 567, up 23 per cent from the day before, Borrelli said.
Of those originally infected, 589 have fully recovered.
National Health Institute chief Silvio Brusaferro said the average age of patients who have died was over 81. They were prevalently male and more than 80 per cent had more than two underlying health conditions.
The epidemic is already weighing hard on Italy's struggling economy and Rome has pledged to spend 7.5 billion euros (S$11.7 billion) to tackle the outbreak and its consequences.
The decree instructs citizens to "absolutely avoid" either entering or leaving the areas listed, and even to avoid moving around other than for emergencies or "essential work reasons" within the designated areas.
Cafes and restaurants will be allowed to stay open as long as a distance of one metre between customers can be guaranteed.
The outbreak has killed more than 3,600 people worldwide and spread across more than 90 nations outside China.