MILAN (Reuters) – A fifth person infected with the coronavirus has died in Italy, officials said on Monday because the government battled to contain Europe’s worst outbreak of the illness and Italian shares tumbled nearly 5% on fears over the economic impact.
More than 220 people have come down with the virus since Friday, the latest data showed, the overwhelming majority of them within the wealthy regions of Lombardy and Veneto.
Authorities across northern Italy have shut schools, universities, museums, and cinemas for a minimum of every week, and banned public gatherings including the famed Venice carnival.
Ten towns in Lombardy on the brink of Italy’s financial capital Milan, with a combined population of nearly 50,000, are placed under effective quarantine, with similar measures in situ for a little town in neighboring Veneto.
“To be honest, nobody thought the spread (of coronavirus) would be so aggressive. The illness isn’t serious, but it must not be underestimated,” Attilio Fontana, the regional governor of Lombardy, told 102.5 RTL radio.
He added that emergency measures imposed at the weekend would be effective which “in a matter of days, the spread of the virus will regress”.
Analysts warned that the outbreak, which is centered on the country’s industrial and financial heartlands, could shunt Italy’s fragile economy into its fourth recession in 12 years.
Italian shares were down 4.68% at 1300 GMT, with businesses most in danger from an expected spending slump worst hit. Electronic payments group NEXI lost quite 6.7%, while motorway and airport retail group Autogrill slumped 12.5%
Local authorities announced two new deaths on Monday, both men in their 80s from Lombardy. The three previous fatalities recorded since Friday were also all elderly and most of the dead had serious underlying health problems.
Lombardy remained the worst-hit region with some 172 confirmed cases while neighboring Veneto had 27 infections, including two in Venice which has been packed for the carnival season.
Officials said 23 people were in medical care, while almost 100 were being taken care of in their own homes, with a number of them showing little or no outward symptoms.
Milan, a city of 1.3 million people, was much quieter than normal for a Monday morning. Trials were canceled, some supermarket shelves were empty, and even the city’s imposing Gothic cathedral closed its doors, disappointing tourists.
“We were only meant to spend three days in Milan then attend Venice for the carnival but everything is shut,” said Russian tourist Violla Belova, 50, wearing a mask as she took photographs of the shuttered Duomo cathedral.
“I hope we won’t need to cut our trip short,” she said.
With other countries looking to stop the spread of coronavirus, Mauritius on Monday told passengers from Lombardy and Veneto aboard an Alitalia aircraft that they might either need to enter quarantine alternatively fly straight back home.
Alitalia said 40 out of the 224 passengers and crew were suffering from the ban and decided to go away from the Indian Ocean island immediately.
Ireland said its citizens shouldn’t visit parts of Italy suffering from the outbreak. Tunisia announced on Monday that it’s going to suspend some flights to Italy to scale back its exposure to the coronavirus.
Austria briefly blocked a train from Italy at its approach Sunday due to concerns over the health of two travelers.
Italy’s tourism industry, which accounts for up to 13% of the gross domestic product, sounded the tocsin.
“We are swamped by cancellations within a previous couple of days, in restaurants, hotels, everywhere,” said Patrizio Bertin, the top of the Veneto branch of Italy’s trade lobby Confcommercio.
Marco Michielli, head of Veneto’s hoteliers’ association Federalberghi, said cancellations were “raining down everywhere the region, like within the remainder of Italy,” and criticized the draconian measures adopted by the authorities.
“I think the govt has been excessively prudent, to use a euphemism, it’s as if there has been an Ebola epidemic.”