The death toll rose to seven, and more than 220 people were infected and 50,000 forced into quarantine, as Italy, the European epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, tried to contain the damage to its economy.
Just three cases had been reported in Italy until last week, before a surge in infections in the north, centering on 10 small towns in the Lombardy region and one in the neighboring Veneto region.
On Monday, police roadblocks were set up around the towns, as businesses were ordered to close, with the exception of some food stores, and residents were told to stay home.
“It’s like the war here, nothing like this has been seen since 1945,” said Francesco Passerini, the mayor of Codogno, one of the quarantined towns in Lombardy.
The virus has shut schools and universities across a swath of northern Italy. Church services and sports events were canceled. In Milan, Italy’s business capital, fashion shows were called off or held behind closed doors.
Venice’s famed Carnival, which had drawn thousands over the weekend, was also brought to a premature conclusion Sunday.
By striking the heart of Italy’s wealthy, industrial northern heartland, the virus could yet help tilt the stuttering Italian economy into recession.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Monday said the outbreak could have a “very strong” impact on Italy’s economy.
The European Union resisted calls to introduce passport controls on borders between Italy and its neighbors on Monday, but a bus heading from Milan to Lyon in France was halted by French police when the driver showed the influenza-like symptoms of the virus.
Trains between Austria and Italy were halted over the weekend after two passengers were thought to be infected, but service resumed Monday after they tested negative.
Over half of the cases emerged around Codogno and were linked to a 38-year-old Italian man, named Mattia, who appeared to be the first person infected in the area, although he had not traveled to China, where the virus originated. That has left officials searching for a “patient zero” who infected Mattia.
Giuseppe Ippolito, the scientific director at the Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases, told the Los Angeles Times he believed patient zero had probably recovered from the virus by now. “But it is still crucial to find him or her to find out where they have been, so we know who else may have been infected,” he said.
All seven victims were elderly and had existing medical conditions, and some experts noted that traditional influenza was currently killing more Italians than coronavirus.
Italy’s civil protection chief, Angelo Borrelli, also pointed out that one reason for the high number of cases discovered over the weekend might be the thousands of tests carried out on residents in danger zones.
But in Codogno, quarantined residents were taking no chances and staying home or donning masks to join the long lines and the few open food stores.
“It’s like a film here — I am taking short walks, but staying well away from the center of town,” a resident who gave his name as Giuseppe said in a telephone interview.
“We watched the news of the first outbreak in Wuhan on TV and never thought it would happen in little Codogno,” said one woman who gave her name as Lucilla, speaking by phone.
“Its surreal but calm,” said Giuseppe Felisi, a financial advisor who lives in Bertonico, one of the quarantined towns.