Acknowledging how difficult it can be to adapt to restrictive measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, Pope Francis told people watching his morning Mass on 12th March that it was for “our own good”.
After two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for COVID-19 on 30th January, a public campaign began to encourage hand-washing, and on 31st January the Vatican installed dispensers of hand sanitiser at the offices where outside visitors receive permits to enter areas closed to tourists.
The measures have become increasingly stringent since late February when a man in northern Italy identified only as Mattia, became ‘Patient One’, testing positive for COVID-19 on 20th February.
The number of people testing positive grew exponentially and all public gatherings, including Masses, were suspended in 10 northern Italian towns on 22nd February.
The Italian government put the 10 towns on lockdown on 23rd February, setting up police roadblocks to prevent people from going in or out.
As the Italian health service tested thousands of people and the virus continued spreading, the restrictive measures expanded to other areas, leading, for example to the suspension of all public Masses in much of northern Italy just before the celebration of Ash Wednesday on 26th February.
At the same time, the Vatican began announcing the cancellation of international meetings.
All schools in Italy, from nursery schools to universities, were closed as of 5th March. The pontifical universities in Rome were included in the closures.
By the time the Lenten retreat of the Roman Curia ended on 6th March, throughout Italy and at the Vatican, people were being advised to keep three feet away from each other.
The lockdown in northern Italy was expanded to entire regions, not just towns, on 8th March. In the rest of the country, Masses were celebrated that morning with people keeping their distance from each other, not shaking hands at the sign of peace and receiving Communion only in the hand.
That night, the Italian government announced the suspension throughout the country of all public gatherings, including religious ceremonies – such as Masses with the faithful present – as well as weddings and funerals. In response, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis’ morning Masses in the Domus Sanctae Marthae would be livestreamed for people who wanted to pray with him.
Just as the pace of new infections increased, so did the pace of new measures to encourage ‘social distancing’ – limiting contact between people to avoid chances that a non-symptomatic carrier of the virus could infect others.
Pope Francis had recited the Angelus on 8th March inside the papal library instead of at his window overlooking St Peter’s Square, but hundreds of people still went to the square and watched on video screens. In the end, the pope came to the window and blessed the people.
All of Italy came under lockdown orders on 10th March and, at midday, Italian police, who patrol outside St Peter’s Square, closed access to it. The Vatican kept St Peter’s Basilica open, but employees, Vatican residents and journalists were the only ones who could get inside.
The lockdown initially banned movement between cities and provinces in Italy, but shops and restaurants were allowed to stay open until 6pm, as long as owners enforced measures to keep customers three feet apart. People still went out for walks, some went to work, public transportation was still available.
Late on 11th March, after the ministry of health announced that more than 12,000 people had tested positive for COV-19 and that more than 800 people had died, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti announced a more stringent version of the lockdown, closing all businesses except grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands and other essential services.
Picture: A nun walks next to an empty St Peter’s Square in Rome during the outbreak of coronavirus on 12th March 2020. (CNS photo/Alberto Lingria, Reuters).