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After Italians Endured Harsh Lockdowns, COVID-19 Cases Spike Again


Italy was hit by the pandemic early. And it had one of the world's highest death tolls. Italians endured a broad lockdown, setting an example and sharply reducing infections. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, that success is now threatened by spikes in cases, including some politicians and celebrities.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Italy's flamboyant 83-year-old former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has tested positive for COVID-19 after vacationing on the island of Sardinia. The summer playground for the rich and famous recently emerged as a hotbed of infections. A week ago, his close friend, Flavio Briatore, also tested positive. Briatore's exclusive island nightclub has been linked to dozens of coronavirus cases. And health authorities are trying to track down thousands of guests who dined and danced there.

At the end of August, Italy registered the highest number of new COVID-19 cases since May when the lockdown was still in effect. The daily rate of new cases shot up in a week from an average 200 to more than 1,400, most were travelers returning from summer holidays abroad and young Italians frequenting beaches and discos, where they ignored safety protocols. The average age of new cases dropped from 55 to 30. Most are asymptomatic. But Health Minister Roberto Speranza said they pose a threat to their parents and grandparents. Despite all this, he vowed schools will reopen on September 14.


ROBERTO SPERANZA: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "In order to do so," Speranza added, "more than ever, we need the extraordinary effort of all Italians, women and men, who once before brought down the contagion curve." Last month, Italy started taking new precautions. Discos were shut down and face masks became compulsory in many outdoor locations. The most immediate challenge is opening schools. The government has ordered millions of new single-student desks - a break from tradition - to ensure social distancing. Face masks will be required for all students while moving about in school. And public transport must operate at not more than 80% percent capacity. Health Minister Speranza took pains to reassure Parliament Tuesday that the country is ready.


SPERANZA: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: "We're the only European country in, perhaps, in the world," says Speranza, "that will provide, free of charge, 11 million face masks daily for each of our students, teachers and staff." In a country where public services are not known for their efficiency, the promise has left many Italians skeptical.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.