Mass at the old basilica in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love began about as close to punctually as usual for Rome, just after twilight had given way to night. The sun had set a little over three quarters of an hour earlier, with its last light bathing the horizon in the colour of the season, before surrendering for a while to dark.
The Mass was that of Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent — the day on which the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The disease is now present in 114 different countries, spread over every habitable continent. There are 118,381 cases worldwide, according to the WHO, and 4,292 confirmed fatalities as of Wednesday evening.
The Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, celebrated the Mass. A friar in habit and surplice served him. There were a lector and a cantor, as well as an organist, but no faithful in the pews. The Italian government has temporarily prohibited large public gatherings. In keeping with the decree, Church authorities in Italy have suspended liturgical celebrations involving the faithful until at least April 3rd.
“The Spirit,” said Cardinal De Donatis in his homily, “will encourage us to have ever more care, attentiveness, and neighbourliness.” He said that, with God’s help, Romans will rise to the occasion, “exercising that imaginative charity, for which Christians have never wanted — and that has never been found wanting in the inhabitants of this city of Rome.”
Pope Francis composed a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, in which he implored the Mother of God: “Help us, Mother of Divine Love, to conform ourselves to the will of the Father and to do what Jesus tells us, He who took our sufferings upon Himself, and took up our sorrows to bring us, through the Cross, to the joy of the Resurrection.”
Pope Francis also prayed: “You, Salvation of the Roman people, know what we need, and we trust that you will provide for those needs so that, as at Cana of Galilee, joy and celebration may return after this moment of trial.” A full translation of the prayer is available on the English page of Vatican News.
Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, announced sweeping new restrictions on commercial activity on Wednesday evening, after Italy saw more than 2,000 new cases confirmed between Tuesday and Wednesday: 10,590 active cases, up from 8,514 on the day before. The death toll climbed from 631 to 827, while recoveries went from 1,004 to 1,045.
Mr Conte said all retail businesses — grocery stores and chemists excepted — were not to open Thursday morning. Professional services may remain active. Conte said measures from remote working and telecommuting to paid leave and holiday time were to be encouraged across the professions. Factories may remain open, with proper precautions. All areas of industry not absolutely necessary to production were to cease on site as well.
Newsstands and tobacconists — which often trade in stamps, telematic bill-paying services, and other essentials — will remain open, as will business that trade in home delivery of prepared food. Banking, postal, and other financial services will be guaranteed, as well as public transport and other essential public services during the period of closure, which Conte said would be reviewed at the end of a fortnight.
Earlier in the day, before they closed, this journalist made a run into town to visit the shops and to have a look around his quarter of the city.
Crossing Piazza Mileto — in the Statuario neighbourhood, almost as far out on the Appia Nuova as one can be without the leaving the city limits — the usually sleepy square was not entirely empty. A few of the old men sat on benches, and sent cheerful greetings. One punter doffed his cap, and another waved. One of us remarked how fine a day it was for the collapse of civilization, and both of us laughed.
Enrico Alimonti helps run Café Blank, the only bar on the square, and in this resident’s opinion, the best cup of coffee in the neighbourhood. He and his partner Eleonora took over the place just about a year ago. They completely redid the space, expanded the menu, and reinvented the feel of the locale. They’ve made quite a go of it. At least, until the recent disruption.
“We were doing well, until this crisis hit,” Alimonti said. “We started from scratch here, and we’ve achieved a lot,” he added, “then, ever since this emergency started — it’s been everywhere in the media — we’ve lost 90% of our business.”
Wednesday afternoon, Alimonti said they weren’t going to throw in the towel, and wouldn’t be closing shop even temporarily, unless — until — they get the order from the authorities. “Perhaps,” however, “[giving the order] is the best thing,” he said. “We’re waiting for the order from the president of the council of ministers,” Giuseppe Conte.
On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Conte gave the order.
On the run into town — mid-day Wednesday, before the shops closed — Traffic on the run into town was light as a Saturday afternoon in August, when even the Romans who aren’t officially on summer holiday still like to close up shop and go to the beach or into the mountains.
Shops, however, were still open.
The short version of my little gander is that, while Paris may have dibs on the motto, Fluctuat nec mergitur, neither Rome nor the Romans look ready to let themselves be easily outdone for buoyance of civic spirit.
I stopped at a chemist to pick up some necessaries and see what I could see, and what I saw was a masked clerk spraying hands with sanitiser, directing traffic, and offering advice. Some customers were entering and exiting, one at a time, while others were served at a window facing the street. In the two or three minutes I had to wait outside, four or five people passed by to ask whether the mascherine — surgical masks — had arrived. They hadn’t.
Another old lady stopped to ask whether her homespun mask was adequate? It was made of black elastic fabric with ear straps either sewn or cut, and there appeared to be a space for inserting a paper tissue she could change at need. This ingenuity drew praise from the chemist’s clerk at the outer door, who was gracious and patient with everyone who approached her. Most of them that did, were likewise gracious.
Along the stretch of commercial street running from the bottom of Largo dei Colli Albani to Via Albano, only the gym — a CrossFit centre named Indomitus — was visibly closed. The perfumery on the corner and the store that sells small household appliances were both open, as appeared from a hundred yards or so were the bookstore and the tobacconist.
Off the square in the other direction, three storefronts were shuttered: a pizza-by-the-slice vendor, a hairdresser, and another perfumery. The vape shop was open. I stopped to talk with the owner, who said he was surprised at the high amount of business he’d had, considering. No one else darkened the door in the ten minutes I was there.
Between Colli Albani and Arco di Travertino, there’s a dry goods store. It’s a chain outlet, Risparmiocasa, which trades mostly in paper goods, bricolage, and household cleaning products. I bought art supplies for my daughter there. The young clerk with whom I dealt was helpful and cheerful. He said he suspected they’d be ordered to close before too long. In the store and on the lot, customers were careful of each other: keeping prescribed distances, while still finding ways to help each other locate products, and help those who needed assistance getting heavy loads to their vehicles.
I did not even try to go into the supermarket at Arco di Travertino, which was going to be my principal excuse for being about town, did any policeman stop me. None did. A queue of people several yards long was formed outside the supermarket, however, its members carefully spaced and waiting patiently.
I decided I’d try again early next morning, and caught the next bus home.