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Italian fashion companies – and their lobbyists – have been pushing to resume operations in recent weeks, “warning that a prolonged lockdown risked irreparably damaging” not only to their businesses but to the sector as a whole. As of late this month, giants like Prada and Gucci, among others, had started to send employees back to work in their manufacturing facilities, albeit “in total security in order to safeguard [their] health and protect them from the virus,” per Prada Group CEO Patrizio Bertelli, and now, Monday is being slated as a day for (at least some) official re-openings, as that date marks the end of the country’s official lockdown. 

Italy has been on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic since the novel virus outbreak exploded there in late February, and it was the first European country to impose a sweeping lockdown on its citizens. Now, after seeing the third highest number of coronavirus cases in the world; the highest number of deaths second to the United States; and a significant loss of medical personnel, the peak of the pandemic has passed for Italy. The total number of positive coronavirus cases has been in decline since April 21. The “R0” figure (infection rate) has been brought down to below 1. 

As the country – which was an estimated two weeks ahead of both the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of its exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic – begins to emerge from the initial stage of the health crisis, its exit strategy will provide lessons in how to navigate “phase 2,” i.e., the post-lockdown period.  

Exiting “phase 1” (lockdown) and going into “phase 2” (living with the virus) will be gradual. Although some economy-driving industries, such as automobiles and fashion are expected to be given special permission to start early, May 4 will mark the reopening of the manufacturing sector, including textiles, construction and wholesale commerce.

Beginning on May 4, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s plan will allow people to travel beyond their municipality for limited reasons and with a self-certification document, but not their region unless visiting a second home. Parks and gardens will reopen. Exercise with other people will be possible, but team sports, recreational activities and sunbathing en masse will still be restricted. 

Bars and restaurants will be permitted to sell takeaway, if ordered online. Funerals will restart but will be limited to a maximum of 15 people. The wearing of masks will be compulsory inside public places, on public transport or wherever social distancing cannot be guaranteed. Public transport will be adjusted to carrying fewer people at any one time.

On May 18, retail shopping, museums, libraries and cultural centers are expected reopen; and on June 1, bars, restaurants, hairdressers and wellness centers will have their turn, as long as they meet stringent requirements regarding regular disinfecting and social distancing.

Excluded from the list for now are schools, which are not expected to reopen before September; religious services (to the open fury of the Catholic church), cinemas, theatres and nightclubs.

The formulation and soon, the actual carrying out of phase 2 – which will be accompanied by extensive testing and contact tracing of the virus, and restrictions will be quickly re-imposed on a zonal basis if necessary – has, inevitably, been a severe test for Conte. His government has been split between those advocating extreme caution in line with the scientific advice, and those wanting a more rapid reopening of the economy. There has been criticism of the lack of clarity in several of the measures. 

This leaves Conte – and the Italian population, as well as its economy – in a fragile position. The economic impact of the continued lockdown is on a scale that has no precedents outside wartime. The projected figures for 2020 of the ministry of the economy, largely in line with those of the IMF, forecast big trouble ahead. GDP is projected to contract by 8 percent (against a pre-COVID predicted rise of 0.6 percent), the public deficit to rise from 2.2 percent to 10.4 percent, public debt to GDP to rise to an astronomical 155.7 percent (from a pre-COVID forecast of 135.2 percent) and the rate of unemployment to 11.6 percent. 

Forecasters estimate that 10 million Italians, a fifth of the total number of adults, will be unable to meet essential expenditures for food, medicines and a roof over their heads.

As for the urgency of the fashion industry getting back to work, the three trade organizations that represent Italy’s $103 billion dollar fashion market – which is responsible for “80 percent of the world’s luxury goods and employs 600,000 people” – say that the shutdown of the industry poses an economic risk that “could cause more lasting damage than the health one.” 

Martin J. Bull is a professor of Politics at the University of Salford. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)