Dario Triscar and Nertila Goga opened their new bistro in Milan on March 5, only to close just days later as the coronavirus pandemic swept into Italy. In short order, they found themselves investing $1,200 Cdn (800 euros) in Plexiglas and spending much of their time in quarantine cutting and gluing barriers to line and surround their tables when the time would come to reopen.
More than two months later, Triscari proudly overlooks the bistro’s outdoor patio, where people are dining al fresco.
“We entered a new reality and we have to adopt,” he said. “When restaurants in Wuhan reopened, we went online to see what they were doing, and that’s where got the Plexiglas idea.”
Italy, the first Western country to be ravaged by coronavirus, has further eased its two-month-long lockdown, allowing everything from museums and libraries to sit-down dining and hairdressers to reopen. With strict new safety regulations in place, businesses are grappling with radical changes to their operations in a city with entirely new rhythms, with staggered opening hours decreed by the government and many still remote working from home.
Some in Milan have seized this time as a chance to make strategic, forward-thinking changes to the city’s modes and flow of transportation. But others are struggling to adapt to new measures that they must implement because of COVID-19.
Together, but apart
What’s gone for now, said Triscari, is what Italians call la socialità — the everyday encounters among friends and strangers tipping back a morning espresso pressed against a café counter or crowding around a table with bright orange Aperol spritzes after work.
Contractor Francesco Vigorita, 28, digs into an antipasto of calamari and potato across a Plexiglas shield from his father, Pino.
“What more can you do?” Francesco said, shrugging. “It’s not the same and I miss seeing friends in groups, but for now this is how it is.”
For some, however, the transition to the new normal has been nothing short of defeating.
Sandra Zini, who with her mother and brother run Il Tronco, a restaurant that’s been in their family since 1933, have not yet reopened. They say the post-lockdown regulations are too complicated.
“Normally we seat 50 clients. Now with social distancing, 16,” she said, gesturing to the widely spaced tables, which by law have to ensure diners who are not related sit a minimum one metre distance from each other.
Embracing change while upholding tradition
For Zini, that means taking the temperatures of staff members and clients, recording the name and phone number of every diner to allow for tracing in case of contagion, sanitizing the washroom each time someone uses it, and patrolling the social distance between clients.
It’s simply too much for her staff of five to handle.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said.
The tension between embracing change and upholding tradition is palpable on the streets of Milan.
A decade ago, when the city moved to reduce smog, the linchpin to its sustainability plan was increasing use of public transit. Now, with a 30 per cent cap on transit capacity due to social distancing requirements, the city is boosting other alternatives to private cars: bicycles, electric scooters, mopeds and vehicle sharing.
WATCH | Coun. Marco Granelli cycles in one of Milan’s new bike lanes
As Milan Coun. Marco Granelli shows off a traffic lane freshly converted into a bike path, pedestrian walkway, moped parking and spaces for vehicles to offload goods, taxi drivers across the street lean against their cars and glare, gesticulating and shouting the odd muffled expletive.
“It’s created a little debate in the city,” Granelli chuckled.
He said vehicle sharing is up 65 per cent, thanks in part to a government incentive that reimburses 60 per cent of the cost of a new bike or electric scooter and use of sharing schemes. Cycling, as a percentage of the means transport, has risen to 30 per cent post-lockdown from 10 per cent pre-lockdown.
“Our main concern is laying down enough bike paths so that when students return in September, our city will be ready,” said Granelli.
To further prepare, Milan will start running its buses and trains with peak frequency to create as much space as possible and its subway is developing a software system to automatically block entrance turnstiles once a station reaches its passenger limit.
Opportunity for visionary thinking
But the biggest challenge long term will be replacing the revenue from the loss in ticket and monthly pass sales that covered half of the cost of running Milan’s transit system. The city is turning to the European Union to help cover the loss and invest heavily in more regional commuter and subway lines.
Milan’s approach is seen as forward-thinking by other major cities, but many here would like the city to go even further.
“We as Milanese believe this is a great opportunity for this city,” said renowned Milan architect and urban thinker Patricia Viel.
She said the major opportunity is revisioning Milan, turning it into a slow-moving, polycentric, open urban space. She wants Milan to ban most cars, enact a speed limit throughout of 30 km/h, widen sidewalks and do away with bike lanes entirely, placing the obligation on the few cars that need to access the centre to follow the rhythm of pedestrians and cyclists.
“We need to educate people to share spaces in the urban environment,” Viel said. “To make them bigger, easier to use and safe. That means you have to be slow, but not by dividing. We really need to share more.”
She also sees lockdown as having shifted people’s relationship to time.
Gone for many, she said, is the unquestioned acceptance that days must follow a predetermined pattern around work.
“This is over,” said Viel. “Now we understand what it means to design our own day … and companies have learned to trust” remote working.
New working hours and locations
How work is restructured will be the cornerstone in any plan to keep infections down in a region where one in seven people have had the virus and half of Italy’s 33,000 COVID-19 deaths have occurred.
Already, Milan’s city hall is working with companies to increase remote working by urging them to have people work from home at least two days a week and stagger work hours. Hairdressers and hardware stores, for instance, are among many now obliged to open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m..
Along with frontline healthcare workers, more than 200 of whom died in Italy during the pandemic, safety is of utmost concern for professions that involve physical contact with others, such as hair dresses, barbers and beauticians.
WATCH | The ‘new normal’ in an Italian spa
In her small spa in the north of the city, Margherita Bordo aims a purple plastic gun-like object at the forehead of a client to measure her temperature.
In addition to checking clients for fevers and recording their phone numbers, Bordo has also installed Plexiglas barriers, set up wooden partitions around treatment chairs (cleverly camouflaged as product display cases) and installed an air purifying system — the latter not required, but “to give clients extra assurance.”
“It will take time for word to spread that it’s safe to come here,” said Bordo, who along with a loss in income, has invested several thousand dollars in the safety measures. “But I’m optimistic. As long as we don’t get a second wave of infections.”