A dispatch from Rome after Italy loses its UK travel corridor

It had been a glorious stretch of ottobrate romane. This romanism – one of my favorites – traces its origins back centuries to when Romans would head to the countryside surrounding the city during the October grape harvest to indulge in baccanalian festivities of wine and food, song and dance.

Today, ottobrate romane is simply a reference to the dazzling autumn days this month often bestows on Rome, with skies such a vibrant shade of blue that they put the garish oil paintings hawked by street artists around Piazza Navona to shame. This year, though, there have been virtually no tourists to buy souvenir artwork or toss a coin in a hat, and the buskers of Piazza Navona have all but disappeared.

The weather in Italy’s capital city has shifted over the past few days and the heavy clouds rolling in over its cupolas and domes and unleashing violent thunderstorms seem like a metaphor for the growing sense of anxiety and foreboding in both Rome and the country in general.

Italy enjoyed a relatively easy summer of stable Covid-19 rates and a steady – if thin – stream of both domestic tourists and plucky travellers from European countries such as France and the UK. In Rome, hotels and restaurants that closed last March gradually opened back up in September. Business was much slower than normal seasons, but enough.

The return of children to classrooms and their parents to indoor offices and other workplaces after the summer holidays, however, has led to a dramatic spike in new daily Covid-19 cases, which have increased from around 1,200 per day just a month ago to almost 9,000 new cases yesterday (October 15).

Though Italy has been been trying to pump the brakes with a series of new restrictions and regulations announced this past Wednesday – including making face masks compulsory indoors and out, capping private gatherings at maximum six people and prohibiting any loitering outside pubs, bars, restaurant or other businesses after 9pm – the country recorded a seven-day rate of 64 cases per 100,000 people, pushing past the UK Government’s threshold of 20 for imposing quarantine measures. As a result, Italy was officially removed from the so-called ‘Green List’ late on Thursday afternoon and Britons returning after 4am on October 18 will be required to self-isolate for 14 days once home.

The five-star Aleph was one of only a handful of luxury hotels that opened at the beginning of summer

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Rome is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and travel-related businesses make up a considerable chunk of the local economy. The addition of Italy to the UK’s quarantine list was a new blow during what has already been a difficult season, and those who work in Rome’s tourism industry had a range of reactions.

The five-star Aleph Hotel just off the city’s iconic Via Veneto was one of only a handful of luxury hotels that opened at the beginning of summer, in part because its rooftop pool is one of the city’s buzziest perches when temperatures soar. As General Manager Massimiliano Perversi said, “[…] The road to recovery is still long; our current occupancy rate [is] around 30 per cent.”

Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner, owners of The Beehive design hostel just blocks from the main Termini train station, are resigned. “We’ve seen this coming for months. There are a lot of factors making travel difficult or impossible right now, and this is just one more that is forcing cancellations because it’s not an option for many people to quarantine once they return to the UK. That said, if you take away five per cent of the 10 per cent occupancy we were operating at, it almost doesn’t matter. We’re already eight months into the worst season we’ve ever had, so this new restriction doesn’t really change anything.”

This sentiment was repeated by Valerio Caffio, owner of the tour guide and travel agency Dearoma, who said: “About one third of our clientele comes from the UK, so when Italy closed to the US we focused all our advertising on that market. Our business decreased by about 95 per cent this season, but the few clients we did have were English. Now we will lose them, as well.”

With bank loans and financing, the agency has been able to stay open, but the quarantine restriction is discouraging. “We don’t understand why the UK government has imposed a quarantine when there is rapid testing available at Italian airports,” continued Caffio.

There are those who are still able to see a silver lining behind the clouds that now hover over Rome. “The news of Italy’s exit from the travel corridors is certainly not positive, but it does not surprise us,” added Perversi. “For UK [travellers] who understandably choose to postpone their stay to a time when it will not be mandatory to undergo a period of quarantine upon returning home, we promise a memorable and carefree experience.”

In the meantime, the Eternal City continues to churn with its La Dolce Vita verve, just as it has done for three millennia – rain or shine.

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