MILAN • Italy scrambled yesterday to contain the biggest outbreak of coronavirus in Europe, shutting off the worst-affected towns and cancelling public events as the number of those infected jumped above 130.
The government passed stringent emergency measures late on Saturday after the first two deaths from the disease were recorded in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.
The number of certified cases in Lombardy rose to 89 yesterday from 54 a day earlier, while in Veneto some 24 people had been infected, including two people in Venice, which is packed with tourists for the annual carnival.
Health officials reported isolated cases in the neighbouring regions of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, saying the total number of known infections in Italy was 132.
Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto, with a combined population of some 50,000, have effectively been placed under quarantine, with locals urged to stay home and special permission needed to enter or leave the designated areas.
Universities were shuttered across much of northern Italy until early next month and four top-flight Serie A soccer matches set for yesterday were postponed.
Lombardy and Veneto represent Italy's industrial heartland and account for 30 per cent of gross domestic output. Any prolonged disruption is likely to have a serious impact on the whole economy.
Lombardy, home to Italy's financial capital Milan, ordered all schools in the region to close and said all public gatherings should be cancelled, including religious services. Museums and public libraries will also be shut. But Milan Fashion Week took place yesterday as scheduled.
The health authorities are struggling to work out how the outbreak started. The first cases were announced just last Friday and doctors do not know the source of the illness. Initial suspicion in Lombardy fell on a businessman who recently returned from China but he tested negative. In Veneto, eight Chinese visitors who had been to the town that was home to the first fatality also tested negative.
"We are (now) even more worried because if we cannot find 'patient zero', then it means the virus is even more ubiquitous than we thought," said Veneto regional governor Luca Zaia.