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Italy has begun easing key restrictions after a two-month coronavirus shutdown. 4.4 million Italians are able to return to work and some limits on movement have been removed in the first European country to impose a lockdown during the pandemic. (May 4) AP Domestic

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ROME – Marco Vigorita strummed his ukulele and belted out three songs – his self-imposed limit – then stayed around to joke with the table of four finishing their lunch outside a restaurant in the bohemian neighborhood of Trastevere.

The four women at the table were there to celebrate one of them earning her law degree, and Vigorita, a common sight on the usually thriving restaurant and bar scene in Trastevere, had no place to go.

“This,” Vigorita said, tilting his head toward the restaurant, Da Enzo, “this is what passes for tourism these days.”

The restaurant served fewer than a dozen diners that lunch shift, a far cry from normal circumstances when Da Enzo’s mostly international clientele stand in line for a seat at the tiny eatery. 

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Rich in historical and cultural treasures such as the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon and containing Vatican City within its borders, Italy’s capital has been among the world’s most prominent tourist destinations for centuries. 

But the city’s sprawling tourism industry was shuttered in early March when Italy announced Europe’s first modern peacetime lockdown in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus. By mid-April, the measures – most residents had to stay at home except for medical appointments or food shopping, and police patrolled the streets in search of rule-breakers – had largely contained the spread of the virus. Weeks later, the tourist industry remains a casualty of the lockdown. 

Italian officials hope that will start to change this week. Starting Wednesday, Italy will allow travelers from the 25 other members of the Schengen visa-free travel area that covers much of Europe to come to Italy with no restrictions. Few expect large numbers to arrive – at least at first.

Rome, which is home to nearly 3 million permanent residents, is hardly a ghost town, but without clusters of tourists and traffic jams, it has become an unhurried place.

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It looks like a throwback to another time: There are kids kicking a soccer ball between the pillars of the ancient portico of the Pantheon, dog walkers circling Piazza Navona’s oval track, solitary pedestrians emerging from the shadows of majestic palaces and tiny flowers sprouting through the cobblestones of Campo de' Fiori, whose name, which translates to Field of Flowers, until recently seemed ironic.

Dario Franceschini, minister of culture and tourism, said Italy, which hosted nearly 63 million foreign tourists last year, is unlikely to see many before next year, and it could be 2023 before the country’s tourism sector recovers completely. Nearly half of all tourists who visit Italy pass through Rome, the country’s top tourist city.

According to Annunziata Berrino, a contemporary history professor from Federico II University in Naples, the closest parallel to the situation is the period immediately after World War II. 

“Italy struggled to emerge from the destruction of the war,” she said. “In the first years, things were tentative. Nobody had money to spend, and few could afford to travel far from home. There were no shops to cater to tourists. Menus weren’t printed in different languages. People who came to the cities just did what the Italians did.”

Da Teo, another restaurant in Trastevere, makes that point. Catering mostly to locals, Da Teo has done better than many institutions as the lockdown rules are lifted. Teodoro Filippini, chef and co-owner of the restaurant, said he’s had mixed results since reopening in May.

“It’s wonderful to see old friends, and I’m happy to get back to work,” he said. “But we can’t survive at this level indefinitely. Before the crisis, I might serve 120, 140 meals on a good night. The best night we’ve had since reopening, I think we prepared 60 or 65 meals.”

On a recent afternoon, Filippini scanned the dozen or so tables spread 6 feet apart. He said he knew at least one person at each table. It shows: He and his partner, Tiziana Mambrini, spent much of the lunch shift going from table to table, asking regulars how they survived the lockdown. 

One of them, Matt Carley, a tour guide originally from Canada but living in Rome, predicted that Roman businesses that rely on tourists are going to struggle.

“I think the few tourists that come are going to head to the countryside or the mountains or the beach,” Carley said. “It’ll be a while before most visitors are going to want to spend their vacation in a big city.”

Those who do come can expect certain changes. Many restaurants use QR codes, so customers can decide on their meal via smartphone rather than passing a menu from table to table.

A much-heralded Rome exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Renaissance maestro Raphael closed during the lockdown but will reopen Tuesday, allowing only six visitors to enter every five minutes. Rome’s museum on futurism is so small that it can host only one visitor at a time. Up the road in Florence, visitors to the Duomo will be required to wear a necklace that will beep when people are too close to each other.

Many expect the first visitors will see the best of Italians.

“People here have gone through a lot, but I think that has brought out a kind of exaggerated kindness,” said Amy Koeth, a native of New York married to an Italian and teaching English at a Roman high school. “Shopkeepers are genuinely glad to see you, even if you don’t buy anything. People waiting in line at the grocery store are willing to chat.”

Vigorita, the strolling ukulele player, said, “The first weekend out playing at restaurants I didn’t get tips from nearly as many people as normal. Restaurants were mostly empty. But I earned more money than I ever did because people were so generous. They were just so thankful to be back to something that felt like normal.”

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