ROME -- Nearly 50 days after he announced Europe's first peacetime national lockdown to confront the coronavirus, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte revealed the first major steps toward what one analyst said would be a "delicate balancing act" between economic and health needs.
Speaking late Sunday, Conte outlined a series of steps that would gradually restart the European Union's third-largest economy.
The development, which Conte dubbed "Phase 2," comes amid the strongest evidence yet that Italy's national lockdown announced by Conte on March 9 is starting to have its desired effect.
The two-day death toll of 593 from Sunday to Monday was lower than any other two-day period since March 14-15, while the number of new coronavirus infections and the number of patients in intensive-care units continue to trend downward. The number of new recoveries outnumbered new infections in Italy two times in the last six days, something that had not happened even once since both were in single digits in the earliest stages of the outbreak.
Conte said the first major steps toward reopening the economy would start May 4, the day after the terms of the latest lockdown decree expire. The lockdown is scheduled to be further eased in steps: first on May 18, and again on June 1. But Conte also warned the steps could be pushed back or even canceled if evidence starts to show the spread of the virus again picking up momentum.
"We are about to embark on the phase that involves living with the virus," Conte said Sunday. "We must be aware of the risk that the contagion's curve could go back up in some parts of the country. The risks are there, and we must take them on, methodically and rigorously."
"Conte is caught between a rock and a hard place," Riccardo Puglisi, an economist in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pavia, told Xinhua. "He's forced into a delicate balancing act between the health of the economy and the health of Italians."
"It's very difficult to tell Italians to stay inside, we're a very social population," he said. "But it would be a big mistake to open things too quickly. If that happened, he might have to tell everyone to go back in a month later."
Marco Leonardi, an economist with the Department for the Study of Labor and Welfare at the State University of Milan, applauded Conte's decision-making reflected in Sunday's national address.
"It's important that Conte listened to the doctors, who can speak with a kind of certainty," he said in an interview. "That's not the case with the economists, who can't be so sure they're right."
According to the plan Conte announced, starting May 4 Italians will be allowed to visit family members in small numbers, and parks, factories, and building sites will be allowed to reopen. People will be allowed to move within the region where they reside but not to leave it. Funerals that were prohibited without special permission can he held, though attendance will be limited to 15 people. Bars and restaurants previously limited to delivery services will be allowed to conduct take-away services. Conte also set a price cap for face masks starting May 4 at half a euro (0.55 U.S. dollar).
Two weeks later, on May 18, retail shops will be allowed to open, along with museums and libraries. Sports teams will be allowed to practice together.
On June 1, two weeks further beyond the previous deadline, restaurants, bars, and hairdressers will be allowed to reopen.
At each step, those participating in any public activity will be required to wear protective masks and stay at least 1 meter away from others.
Francesco Daveri, a professor of macroeconomics at the SDA Bocconi University School of Management, said that the rules in general terms were "in line" with what the government has done so far -- both in terms of being "prudent" and in terms of "ambiguity."
He noted that the rules allow someone to visit their sister or brother but not their romantic partner, that sports teams can practice but there's no sign of when they'll play.
"There is an ambiguity that allows for certain flexibility in the way they are applied," Daveri told Xinhua. "This is an Italian solution that offers some predictability but which allows the rules to be adjusted as we go along based on circumstances."