ROME (AFP) - Italians flocked to bars, restaurants and cinemas following an easing of coronavirus restrictions on Monday (April 26), as Prime Minister Mario Draghi unveiled a massive European Union-funded plan he said would shape the crisis-hit country's future.
After months of stop-start restrictions imposed to manage second and third waves of Covid-19, Italy hopes this latest easing will mark the start of something like a normal summer.
"I've cleared my schedule," said 71-year-old Ottavio Rosati, a movie director in Rome. "I'm booked up with museums, restaurants and bars... I'm not going to sit still."
Mr Draghi has admitted to taking a "calculated risk" with the reopenings, as infection rates have fallen but Covid-19 deaths still mount by hundreds every day, to more than 119,000.
Italian businesses are desperate to reopen after the pandemic sparked the deepest recession since the end of World War II.
The country is pinning its hopes on a €220 billion (S$352 billion) plan funded by the EU, which Mr Draghi on Monday told lawmakers would affect "the country's destiny".
Great to be back
Three-quarters of regions dropped on Monday into the lower-risk "yellow" category, with bars and restaurants permitted to restart table service outside - including, for the first time in six months, in the evening, although a 10 pm curfew remains in place.
"Finally!" said Mr Daniele Vespa, the 26-year-old head waiter at Baccano, a restaurant near Rome's Trevi Fountain. He added: "It's the start of a return to normality."
Cinemas, theatres and concert halls can also open at 50 per cent capacity, followed by the staggered opening of swimming pools, gyms, sporting events and theme parks by July 1.
In Milan, the Beltrade cinema claimed the title of being the first to reopen after six months of inaction with a special 6am screening of Caro Diario, a classic Italian film from the 1990s.
"I went with my husband, and it was great to be back together in a cinema and do this crazy thing," said Ms Francesca Pierangeli, one of 82 people at the sold-out show.
Mr Draghi had been under intense pressure to ease restrictions, including from far-right leader Matteo Salvini and increasingly vocal anti-lockdown street protests.
The vaccination programme is gaining pace, with 17.75 million jabs administered so far in a population of around 60 million, but experts doubt this could be enough to stave off a new health crisis.
"Clearly if the gradual reopening is interpreted as a 'free for all', a new surge in infections risks compromising the summer season," warned Mr Nino Cartabellotta, head of health think-tank GIMBE Foundation.
Already at the weekend, throngs of people took advantage of the warm weather and packed the streets of central Rome and other cities, causing the police to close off some crowded areas.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the pandemic in early 2020 and remains one of the worst-affected, with the EU's highest reported death toll.
Mr Draghi told Parliament on Monday that the €222 billion investment and reform plan would affect "the country's destiny, the extent of its role in the international community, its credibility and reputation" on the world stage.
Italy is the main beneficiary of the EU's €750 billion post-pandemic recovery fund, but the country is under intense scrutiny to spend the money wisely. The plan must be submitted to Brussels by Friday for approval.
The government hopes the plan will boost growth by 3.6 percentage points by 2026, after the economy shrank by a staggering 8.9 per cent in 2020 on the back of coronavirus closures.
Priorities include infrastructure, notably high-speed railways; green energy, including hydrogen power projects; investment in Internet services and digitalisation of public administration.
There will be money to help women and young people, who have disproportionately lost out during the pandemic, while around 40 per cent will be targeted at historically under-performing southern Italy.
Mr Draghi, a former European Central Bank (ECB) chief, has also highlighted the importance of tax reform and speeding up the snail-paced justice system - noting it currently takes about 500 days to conclude a civil suit, against 200 in Germany.
Disputes over the spending plan brought down the previous prime minister and his coalition, after which Mr Draghi was parachuted in to lead a national unity government in February.
On Monday, he said Italy would pull through. "I am sure that honesty, intelligence and a taste for the future will prevail over corruption, stupidity and vested interests."