As winter wanes into spring, tourists from across the world typically pack the small seaside fishing village of Monterosso al Mare nestled in a Mediterranean bay and surrounded by rugged Italian countryside.
But right now the narrow streets and pathways are nearly empty said Caroline Cimino, a native Omahan who moved to Italy six years ago and is now a tour guide in the town of 1,500 in the northern Italian province of La Spezia.
“It’s very eerie,” said the 25-year-old Westside High School graduate. “It doesn’t feel real.”
The city is in federally mandated lockdown, a move rarely applied to an entire country since World War II but enacted now to slow the spread of coronavirus. The lockdown, announced March 10 and lasting until April 3, includes a curfew between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and travel restrictions between cities.
The lockdown comes as Italy has become the new center of the global pandemic with the most active cases in the world as well as rising death rates. While there are no reported cases in her city, people take the lockdown seriously, Cimino said.
On any given day, only a few walk the streets as police announce over megaphones that citizens are to stay inside unless they’re getting essentials. Cimino said among the few open businesses are banks, grocery stores and tobacco shops where people add money to their phone plans.
Some feel the same decision could become a reality in the United States as its cases trend in a similar direction direction. Different states and cities have already advised people to “shelter in place” or close bars and restaurants.
A similar move would not surprise Cimino who said her experience in Italy mirrors what she’s seen of the American response online.
As cases began trickling into Italy in late January, spreading dramatically throughout February, Cimino said life went on normally. In late February, Cimino took a ski trip and found herself riding up the mountain in a cramped gondola with parents making use of school closures by taking their kids to the slopes.
“We were all oblivious to how serious it was,” she said.
It wasn’t until March 3 when she stopped in Florence while making her way back home that the crisis felt real. In addition to empty streets and tourist attractions, she found she was the only one staying in her hotel.
A week later the Italian government instituted a nationwide lockdown to the entire country.
However, Cimino said her life on the coast is far from the picture most Americans are probably seeing of Italy right now.
“It’s not like we’re prisoners,” she said, “but we’re all following the laws the best we can because we’d like this situation to be over sooner rather than later.”
The biggest challenge is the lack of work, she said. March is supposed to be the start of her season giving tours along the Mediterranean coast. Instead, she’s having to live off savings already dwindled by months of little work during the winter. And though Italy suspended all rent and utility payments during the crisis, it still worries her.
The lockdown has also suspended all sense of routine. It stops mattering what day it is and whether you choose to eat dinner at 6 pm or 3 a.m.
Cimino started documenting her life in the lockdown, doing research on coronavirus’ spread and posting videos on YouTube with titles like “CORONAVIRUS IN ITALY | LOCKDOWN.” Those videos have tens of thousands of views and Cimino says she receives messages from friends all over the world watching them.
Many of them say they find the videos educational and contextualize to what lockdown looks like. Cimino hopes that messages resounds with friends and family especially in the United States like her grandmother in Omaha who Cimino said is still following her daily routine.
But more than anything the videos and research she’s doing have been a way to stay alert and driven in a time of so much uncertainty.
“I found this new purpose under lockdown,” she said, “and I’ve made it my mission to spread awareness about the virus and what it’s like living under lockdown and make people less afraid of the word ‘lockdown’ because I think a lot of people think it’s like jail or house arrest… I want people to understand it’s safe to be under lockdown. It’s a safe concept.”