hg0088If there were ever a place designed for a quarantine, it would be Feltre, in northern Italy, where I’ve been living with my family for the past six months. The city, my wife’s birthplace, sits at the foot of the Dolomites and has a population of about twenty thousand. (Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where we lived before, was more than double the size.) Tourists aren’t too common; artists and recluses are. My family lives in a house on top of a mountain, and few people are around. It’s the ideal place for those who are interested in shutting out the rest of the world.
On Wednesday, local health officials recommended that we do exactly that. As coronavirus sweeps through Italy at an unprecedented rate, residents of several northern regions, including Lombardy (the most populous region in the country) and Veneto (the fifth-most populous), have been advised to isolate themselves as much as possible. Last Friday, there were fourteen cases of the COVID-19 virus identified in Lombardy, where Fashion Week was being held in Milan. Over the weekend, twelve towns—more than fifty thousand residents—were placed under quarantine. Europa League soccer matches and Ash Wednesday events were cancelled. One patient died, then another, and as our concerns grew so, too, did the virus’s reach, spreading east to the Veneto region, in which Feltre is situated. By Tuesday evening, there were cases reported down in Sicily, off the toe of the Italian boot. The virus had travelled nearly a thousand miles in five days.
“It’s time to turn down the tone,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said to La Repubblica, Italy’s second-largest newspaper, on Wednesday. “We need to stop the panic.” That night, the number of cases hit four hundred—a twenty-five per cent surge in twenty-four hours. La Repubblicahg0088 reported, “Ours is a country in nervous breakdown.”
In Feltre, my family has quickly grown accustomed to our new routine: wake up, check the local coronavirus-patient count, take our temperatures, then wash our hands. The main thing, though, is to avoid going into town. Unlike Codogno, the center of the outbreak—which has been dubbed, by the Italian press, the “Wuhan of Italy”—Feltre is not yet within the red zone, where supermarkets limit the number of customers allowed inside at once and roads are patrolled by the carabinieri, who keep residents in and visitors out. Nevertheless, one local doctor told me that our commune has probably been exposed to the virus since January. “Don’t go to the hospital in Feltre, to avoid contagion,” she said, as there would be a higher risk of contamination there. “Avoid contact with people—especially during this time when we don’t really understand the virus.” (After publication, a representative of the Local Health Authority sent the New Yorker a statement clarifying that there are no confirmed cases at Feltre hospital and that steps have been taken to limit visitors.)
hg0088The order has been easier for some to follow than others. One recent morning, after waking up and checking the patient count, I walked over to my bedroom window, which has a view of a nearby hiking trail. Stumbling about outside, in the early-morning fog, was my father-in-law, Papi, who, for decades, has begun each day by hiking a circle around the house. He was spitting every few feet—another important part of the routine—and coughing, loudly.
Papi has had a smoker’s cough for years, but it seems to have worsened in the past month. He’s nearly seventy years old—roughly the same age as the fourteen patients who contracted the virus in Italy and died—and he seldom washes his hands. He wears the same knit holiday sweater every day, which he washes about as often as his hands, and he doesn’t shower. (Papi almosthg0088 showered last Thanksgiving, but then he grumbled that our cat’s litter box, which we keep in the bathroom, smelled too bad for him to get through a full wash, and so he called the whole thing off.) “I’m always clean,” he insists. We love each other, but from a distance. I’ve hugged him once, maybe twice, but that was before I knew him well. He’s a good grandfather to my son, if somewhat absent both emotionally and physically—his wandering not confined to our small rural plot but the larger city of Feltre. Of everyone in my family, including my son, who is five months old, it is Papi who I am most worried about.
“There are real concerns about the virus,” he said, the other day, over coffee and biscuits. Then he wrapped a dingy brown scarf around his neck. He was headed out.
hg0088My wife and I constantly worry about where Papi’s going and who he’s with. “Everyone’s saying don’t go on unnecessary outings, and he’s doing exactly that,” my wife complained to me recently, once we were safely out of earshot, on the top floor of the house—which Papi rebuilt, in the nineties, and has lived in ever since. Before we moved to Feltre, he had been living in the house alone, and, though we’d partly moved there to be closer to him, it often felt like we were guests in his home, passersby in his established routine. For that reason—and for so many others—it’s difficult to tell him what to do.
So I’ve taken to following him. That day, when Papi left the house, I skulked out behind him, trailing him down the mountain. His first stop was at the nearest village bar, Da Cecco. (Several coronavirus patients in Lombardy had contracted the virus from a local bar.) Da Cecco was closed, so Papi met up with a friend—another man in his seventies who has lived in Feltre for his entire life and is unconcerned about the outbreak. They drank.
Next, Papi descended into the old city of Feltre, which sits in the lower stretches of Val Belluna, a valley guarded by a large castle in the Alpine foothills. The city’s imperial gate was built in 1489—a bit of medieval flair that’s bolstered by the fourteenth-century campanile and the fifteenth-century baptistry. Equally medieval, perhaps, is the path of coronavirus, which has mirrored that of the black plague: originating in China and sweeping through Asia before spreading to Italy and onward throughout Europe.
hg0088Italy has had the largest contamination of coronavirus outside of Asia. Meanwhile, the government is still struggling to identify a Patient Zero, and the country’s far-right opposition party has inaccurately attributed the outbreak to non-European immigration. Shutdowns at automotive factories have stifled the economy, and the stock market has plummeted. But perhaps most striking was the news, on Tuesday, that Iraq, a war-ravaged country in the midst of political upheaval, was banning flights originating from Italy. The mood in Feltre—among Italians and expatriates alike—was that of indignation. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in Italy.
In Feltre, schools are closed, religious services postponed. The regional government has moved to close factories in the area. (Virtually all Ray-Ban glasses are made nearby, in a factory in Agordo, which has yet to shut down.) Most of the shops are still open, a prerogative of the owners so long as Feltre remains outside of the red zone. I followed Papi as he walked by Farmacia Minciotti, one of three pharmacies in town, where Tommaso Bordi, the chemist, and his mother, Eleanora, were distributing tubes of hand sanitizer, bottles of multivitamins, and packs of surgical masks to a horde of frantic customers. The pharmacy had run out of respirators days ago. “I sold five thousand of the surgical masks, even after explaining to people that these were less effective,” Bordi said. “But they wanted them, anyway. It’s a classic case of general psychosis.”