Claudio Bisanzi has wonderful memories of summers spent in Newport. Charming and funny, he quickly made friends and learned much about our country and our little slice of Heaven. Now living in Florence, Italy, Newport This Week asked Bisanzi to provide a picture of life under the threat of the coronavirus outbreak in his battered homeland.
When did you first become aware of the coronavirus? At the beginning, they spoke about this grand coronavirus from China. We have now discovered that it really started with a German who went to China, then back to Germany and then Italy. We thought it was an influenza that concerned China, not Italy, and like all things new, we needed to wait and see.
What was your government telling you at the outset and how quickly did the situation escalate? The government told us to be mindful, wash your hands, don’t frequent crowded places, but at that point, everything was still open. We were watching the coronavirus cases escalate, especially in northern Italy … and then suddenly, boom, boom, boom, it was escalating rapidly. The government stepped in and said that’s enough, the people are not respecting the boundaries. Realizing there were problems, they decided now no one can leave the North region. But what happens? Irresponsible people, many from the South who relocated to Milan for work, realizing there was going to be a problem leaving the region, jumped on trains or cars and traveled South, spreading the virus and creating a disaster.
What does life in Italy feel like right now? It’s almost as if it is wartime. You can’t go outside. For example, I enjoy riding my bike, especially in Florence, where there are many beautiful hillsides. First, you need a document that says where you are going … if you don’t have this document on you, they can arrest you. These documents are stamped, you fill it out and sign your name. If you are out and get stopped by the police, and you are not where your document states, you will be fined 200 euros and you could even end up in jail.
There is no one in the streets. Sunday morning, I was at the cathedral in Florence, the Piazza della Repubblica, and at Ponte Vecchio, which is the historic center. Normally on Sundays there are thousands of people. I did a video to show there was no one. The restaurants, bars, museums are closed. At Piazzale Michelangelo, instead of thousands, I counted 10 of us on the street.
You can go out to do necessities like food shopping, but only one person in the family. You can go running in open spaces, but gyms are closed, same with places of employment, except for banks, pharmacies, markets. Everything is restricted.
Are there any positive things to see? It is not all bad. There are artists creating these happenings. Sunday night, people were out on their terrace singing and dancing, or at the window singing, joking. There is no melancholy; that’s not who we are. Tonight, I cooked a great meal, I had two glasses of wine and life is good. It is a very patriotic time in Italy. People are rediscovering their country and what it means to be Italian. The people are more united, respectful. Normally, Italians are never in agreement about anything. People are eating at home together with their children and rediscovering family.
What is the most difficult part of the situation? The problem is not this sickness, as much as the enormity of the situation. If you have 6,000 people sick at the same time, there is not enough hospital space, supplies or medical personnel to care for the patients, and we have the best medical coverage in the world, with free testing, free hospital stay, free ambulance. But our hospitals are overrun.
What this coronavirus has created now is an incredible economic situation. I run a new cooking school [and] … all my clients have cancelled. Florence, like Newport, is tourist-driven, with a short summer season. By the time this coronavirus runs its course, it will likely be June with no tourism left in Florence.
What is the government doing to help people financially? The government has put aside 30 billion euro to build up the economy. We no longer must pay taxes, car loans or mortgages until October, so we will have breathing room. Self-employed people will receive a minimum of 800 euros a month until the economy improves. When the 15 days assessment period is over, we are hoping for good news. We will just have to wait and see, right? Meanwhile stay in your house!
I couldn’t end our conversation without asking about Bisanzi’s time in Newport, when he shared Thanksgiving with my friends and family.
Reflecting on his time in Newport, he said, “Newport is very beautiful, but more importantly, I found the people to be very honest, sincere and welcoming,” he said. “I worked at Lucia Italian Restaurant, and as soon as I left work, I had invitations for dinner or to meet up with new friends.
“I was looking for an adventure, to see America and learn about the tourist industry. I didn’t expect to find a family. Truly, I felt at home like I have never felt anyplace else in my travels. And I had a beautiful love story. Newport has stayed in my heart.”