Italy tries a return to some normalcy after virus closures

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ROME (AP) – Authorities in Italy moved Friday to re-open schools and museums amid the coronavirus outbreak in the country which has the most cases outside of Asia, as Italians yearned for a return to normal life even as other European countries were introducing restrictions or closures to rein in the spread of the disease.

Even in the most heavily affected regions – Lombardy and Veneto in the north, where some entire small towns have been under quarantine in the heart of the outbreak – political leaders said Friday they hope health authorities will let them open schools next week.

At least 650 people have tested positive in Italy, almost entirely in the country’s productive north, where scientists have been trying to determine just how the outbreak, with no known link to China’s massive epidemic, began.

“The aim is to return to normalcy,” Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia told state TV in an interview, noting that 79 of the 133 people in Veneto with the virus “have no symptoms and are in perfect health.”

While Italy is looking to ease restrictions, other parts of the world are still closing down activities and venues in an attempt to rein in the virus’ spread. The World Health Organization’s chief said on Friday that 24 cases have been exported from Italy to 14 countries.

Italy’s neighbor, Switzerland, on Friday banned all events involving more than 1,000 people until March 15, including the annual Geneva International Motor Show.

In Japan, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea will be closed from Saturday to March 15, operator Oriental Land Co., said. In South Korea, which has the next highest number of cases in the world after China, the popular K-Pop group BTD canceled a concert planned for April in Seoul.

France saw case totals suddenly jump to 38, prompting authorities to test a raft of people, limit some public activities and try to determine the source of the latest infections.

Most are concentrated in the Oise region north of Paris, where a teacher with the virus died this week and where the source of the outbreak is unknown.

Germany has reported 53 cases. Spain has experienced an uptick in cases, raising the tally to 32 by Friday, with all but three of them linked to Italy’s outbreak.

Since Thursday night, new cases with links to Italy have been reported in Nigeria – the first known case in sub-Saharan Africa – United Arab Emirates, Greece, France, Lithuania and the Netherlands.

Moves to ease some restrictions in Italy began in areas where few cases were reported. A tribunal in the east central region of Marche suspended a regional ordinance that had shut down schools and museums, but that suspension was challenged, leaving schools likely closed there for another week. Among Marche’s six known cases, one patient is a student.

In the western region of Liguria, which has reported about 20 cases, local administrators decided that students could resume school next week.

The majority of Italy’s cases have been reported in Lombardy, a populous region that includes Italy’s financial hub, Milan.

One of Milan’s top tourist attractions, the iconic Gothic cathedral known as the Duomo, will open to guided tours on Monday, but Masses still haven’t been scheduled. The bustling metropolis has resembled more of a ghost town lately, as workers stayed home and tourism has dwindled there, and in other parts of Italy.

One restaurant underscored the city’s resolve with a sign in the window displaying a popular hashtag #milanononsiferma – Milan doesn’t stop.

Ten towns in Lombardy are under quarantine, after nearly all the early cases of COVID-19 were clustered there, with no known link to the virus outbreak in China.

Researchers at Milan’s Sacco Hospital announced that they had isolated in four patients an Italian variation of COVID-19, with differences from the strain identified in Wuhan, China, where the epidemic began. They expressed hope the discovery could lead to more targeted treatment of patients.

The research suggests that the virus might have been present for some time in Italy before cases started exploding in Lombardy. “The virus has been circulating under the radar for a few weeks,” Massimo Galli, the hospital’s director of biomedical and clinical services, told state TV.

The drop in tourism, one of Italy’s biggest industries, is also being keenly felt in Veneto’s most famous city, Venice, which lives off tourism.

“Tourism has been brought to its knees” Veneto’s governor said, noting that that sector brings in $18 billion ($20 million) in revenues. “It’s the biggest industry in Veneto,” Zaia said.

The Italian government scheduled a Cabinet meeting expected to focus on mitigating economic damage, which could push the nation’s long-stagnant economy into a recession.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said that among the suffering sectors were hotels, which have been forced to return reservation deposits. “They are experiencing a liquidity problem,” said Franceschini, saying cancellations were running as high as 80 percent in some places, including many locations without infections.

“I’m about to lose everything if it continues like this,” said Emanuela Soppelsa, who owns the 60-guest Hotel Al Parco near Moena in an Italian ski resort area. She told The AP that 60 Polish skiers had cancelled their March 7-14 booking.

Among the many companies reeling from the virus’ damage to the economy was long-ailing airline Alitalia. With tourists scrapping plans to visit Italy just ahead of usually packed Easter and summer seasons, Alitalia is seeking to temporarily lay off 3,000 employees on top of 1,000 already on temporary layoff for months.

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Frank Jordans in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague, Angela Charlton in Paris, John Rise in Mexico City, Aritz Parra in Madrid and Maria Grazia Murru in Rome contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the new coronavirus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak

A cleaner sanitizes a wagon on a regional train, at the Garibaldi train station in Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Authorities are taking new measures to sanitize trains and public transportation after the COVID-19 virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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