In March of 2020 things changed rather quickly in Sicily and overnight as Coronavirus began spreading in Northern Italy. Children went from celebrating the final day of the Carnival in the usual fancy dress party atmosphere with their classmates, into a complete home lockdown. Big cities and little towns alike went from bustling centres of activity to ghost towns as people retreated into their homes.
I went from teaching my private students and starting after school ESL classes at the local primary school to not working at all. Eventually, I had to home school, my child through the rest of the school year. And help him through the most awful three months as we watched the virus’s numbers peak at alarming levels.
The whole world has experienced the same global shift, but the impact on Sicily has been intense. During the lockdown, I had to stop looking at the news as the Italian press was scaremongering and creating panic. Sicily’s connection to mainland Italy was shut down, except for essential workers who commuted from Calabria to Sicily. Many Sicilian’s living in Northern Italy scrambled down to their island, resulting in small pockets of forced quarantine.
Generally speaking, Sicilian’s stuck to the rules. There were a few exceptions which resulted in several viral videos of silly people breaking the rules. At the same time, some majors and regional governors launched into lectures like parents who need to ground disobedient children.
The Major of Messina Cateno De Luca made it into the national press and as a guest on the popular talk show hosted by Barbara D’Uro. As he physically stopped unauthorised people as they arrived from Villa San Giovanni, Calabria.
Being an island, actually helped Sicily to control the spread, it made it easy to identify where the main cases originated. In the province of Messina, for example, officials traced the many instances of Corona in nursing homes back to a group of people who holidayed in the Northern Italian ski fields. Members of the group flew back via Bergamo and Bologna, hotspots for the virus. Members of the group were professionals like lawyers and doctors who worked in the nursing homes of Messina, many of which had to be eventually shut down.
On the whole, I consider myself lucky as, during the lockdown announcement, I found myself at my in-laws country property. So I was able to pass out the time in the countryside with room to walk, surrounded by greenery and in an isolation bubble together with my in law’s family.
My family are dispersed between Western Australia and New Zealand, as the situation developed in Sicily, they also gradually went into lockdown. Who knew living in such isolated parts of the world would be an advantage? New Zealand is now back to normal, and WA is isolating itself from the flare-ups of Sydney and Melbourne and is generally doing well.
The current situation means no International so I’ll not get to visit my family this year and don’t know when I can see them in person. I have to be content with video calls and messaging for now.
A lack of international travel due to Coronavirus is the cause of the most significant loss to the Sicilian economy. The island bases its economy on tourism, and so it has been a disastrous summer for Sicily’s small businesses. The beaches, restaurants and hotels are relatively empty, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.
The Sicilian region has been giving visitors discount vouchers to encourage Italian tourists to visit. The Sicilian tourist board also launched a new online campaign to rebrand Sicily as ‘the happy island’ destination.
New guidelines in Italy allow travellers from within Europe not to self isolate. Most tourist destinations and venues are practising social distancing. Generally, for restaurants, booking is required. At the same time, hand sanitising stations are at the entrances to every office and store. And masks are obligatory.
Most museums and regional archaeological parks have opened. At the same time, cinemas and theatres will gradually reopen while offering exclusive online events and shows for no more than 480 spectators at a time. The Cous Cous Fest at San Vito Lo Capo has been tentatively rescheduled for the 18th to the 27th of September.
Excursions to Etna and Adventure parks in Sicily have also reopened with fewer people and are strictly reservation only. While the summer amusement parks will remain closed for this year.
Public transport is available always with reduced capacity as social distancing is in place. Plexiglass barriers have been installed in airports, along with electronic monitoring, to avoid overcrowding. At the same time, all travellers require masks and gloves.
While local travellers and other Italians are taking advantage of having Sicily to themselves, it can never make up for the shortfall of international visitors.
In this post COVID period in Sicily, I consider myself to be fortunate, despite losing income and suffering through a tremendous amount of stress. Still, it is always wise to practice gratitude. I have everything that I need, and I’m able to stumble through this challenging period.
But I do feel for all of the people who work in the tourism and hospitality industry of Sicily. Some family businesses have chosen to remain closed and will reopen next year, and others have closed their doors permanently.
Talking to people who work in tourism and retail in Sicily, I keep hearing the same comments about how the virus has killed people and killed the economy. How businesses need tourists, but boarders are closed. And general heartbroken reactions.
But on the flip side Sicilians are very resilient and are masters of the ‘arte di arrangiarsi’ or the art of adaptation, they know how to handle economic downturns. They are used to being placed behind the eight ball in many contexts; they are resourceful and can overcome any difficulty.
As any keen entrepreneur will know when things aren’t going as you planned, that is the moment to reassess and come up with new solutions. The impact of Coronavirus on tourism in Sicily can be an opportunity to develop new ways of doing business. Businesses should be encouraged to produce something tangible and fresh on the island. Encouraging tourists to visit will always be valuable, but developing more local products and online business opportunities are potential solutions. The worldwide trend of online commerce can become an exciting direction for Sicily and Italy in general to follow.
The Sicilian strength of character is fantastic, and they are getting through this tough time just as they have done at other difficult times. Locals are enjoying the island as they have always done, living in the moment. And they are greeting those who have made it here, despite all of the challenges. Sicilians will write this year off and prepare for better times ahead.
I live in a small town in Messina province, which reflects how life has become all over the island. The new normality of social distancing and masks, while going against the grain of the Italian culture has been accepted. With further precautions becoming regular custom Sicilian’s are returning to their usual coffee at the bar, even though it is at a distance, alfresco or take away.
Masks somewhat muffle conversations in the piazza. However, they still happen; the mask fashion has reached wonderfully creative levels. Fresh food markets are opened again with controlled access by local Vigile (municipal police). During church services seating is assigned, the priest disinfects his hands and puts a mask on as he brings communion to each person individually.
Occasionally Sicilians will forget the no handshake rule and have to disinfect their hands as they go into a store. And it still feels strange not to go in for a kiss of the cheek. It’ll be a while longer, perhaps after a vaccine for us to see young Italian lovers kissing out on the streets again. But we will see it also.
Fast-forwarding to today Wednesday 14th October it seems the socialising and local tourism in Italy has caused the numbers of Corona cases to rise. New restrictions are slowly being put in place with the hope of reducing the spread or danger of a second lockdown.
Unfortunately many Italian’s took the lockdown as forced imprisonment, a loss of liberty instead of a precaution against an invisible enemy. Realistically we are still in a war against Corona; it isn’t over yet the whole world is battling.
Now is not the time to socialise, mingle or go out dancing. It’s time to be responsible, abide by the guidelines, be stoic and patient. We are not children; sacrifices can be made for now. When everything is over, then there is the time to party like you never have before.