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As Italy's COVID-19 Cases Rise, Prime Minister Calls For Restrictions

NOEL KING, HOST:

The first Western country to get hit with a major outbreak of COVID-19 was also the first country in the world to impose a nationwide lockdown. One year and more than 100,000 deaths later, there is now a third wave in Italy. And NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on the start of another lockdown.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: With a sixth consecutive week of rising infections, the new prime minister was quick to act. On Friday, Mario Draghi thanked Italians for their infinite patience but said new restrictions are needed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MARIO DRAGHI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "The memory of what happened last spring is vivid, and we'll do everything to prevent it from happening again," Draghi said. "I'm aware of the consequences for children's education, for the economy," and he added, "also for the psychological state of us all." The COVID surge is widely attributed to Italians lowering their guard, especially young people not wearing masks and people congregating in large numbers before a 10 p.m. curfew. Starting today, all nonessential businesses and schools are closed for three weeks in most of Italy. People are allowed to leave their homes only for work, health care or emergency reasons. For Easter, restrictions will be extended nationwide. Over the weekend, Italians took advantage of their last days of freedom.

At noon, in Rome's Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, cafes were packed. People sipped aperitivos and espressos. The area was crowded with window shoppers.

(CROSSTALK)

POGGIOLI: This elegant boutique had many customers. And manager Paola Albonatzo (ph) was stoic about the lockdown.

PAOLA ALBONATZO: We are very worried by restrictions because we have to close the shop, and it is a very good period for us to work. It's the start of the season. But, of course, I understand that if it is necessary for our health, we agree.

POGGIOLI: Throughout Italy, scores of businesses have shut down. Thirteen percent of Italy's GDP is based on tourism, which has been at a standstill over the last year. That was starkly evident in Rome's majestic Piazza Navona.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FOUNTAIN SPLASHING)

POGGIOLI: On a sunny Saturday morning, only a few people wandered alongside the fountains. Cafes here cater to tourists, but tables were empty. The manager of Caffe Domiziano, Francis Ferrus (ph), said his employees are on government-funded furloughs or work just two hours a day. He pointed sadly to green toughs growing between the cobblestones.

FRANCIS FERRUS: (Through interpreter) If nobody walks here, grass starts growing. My heart cries to see Navona like this.

POGGIOLI: Across Italy, the mood is melancholy. Tessa Weichmann (ph) lives in Lucca. During last year's lockdown, she says Italians rallied with solidarity, concerts on balconies and rainbows painted on windows.

TESSA WEICHMANN: The reality of it is that this time, there are no rainbows. There are no - there is no singing. We're all waiting for the layoffs that have been postponed, and we're all waiting for the vaccine.

POGGIOLI: Prime Minister Draghi has set a goal of 80% of the population vaccinated by the end of September. A faster vaccination program, he says, is the only way to end the pandemic. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.