Analysis. Criticism rained down on the Italian prime minister, who sided with health experts over the opposition, which claims ‘we’ll starve to death’ and church bans are ‘an act of persecution.’

Lives vs. the economy: Conte’s controversial speech Sunday

It cannot be said that the start of Phase 2, the real litmus test, was a success for Giuseppe Conte. His message on Sunday evening was met with thunderous criticism, not only from the opposition but also from the government majority itself. It wasn’t Salvini, nor Renzi of the “internal opposition,” but the head of the PD Senate group, Andrea Marcucci, who wrote on his FB page that in the new Prime Minister’s Decree there are three aspects that must be reviewed: “Church Masses, the opening of restaurants and bars and visits to relatives.”

That’s a bit like asking to rewrite the decree from top to bottom. Indeed, this is the climate among the PD deputies, who on Monday morning were letting out rumors about their “greatest concern over the measures that are being piled on.” Not to mention the “very negative disposition” of Italia Viva, which had opened fire on the decree before it was even announced. Matteo Renzi spared no punches: “It’s unbelievable that in Germany they are reopening everything and we aren’t. We have to start the phase of living with COVID immediately, or we’ll starve to death.” So much for avoiding exaggeration.

On Monday, the most contentious provisions were those regarding religious ceremonies and visits to close relations. Almost everyone was lined up on the side of the Italian Episcopal Conference. This included the whole of the right, with Berlusconi finding it “unreasonable and an act of persecution to ban religious ceremonies.” Italia Viva went in the same direction, of course—but so did the PD, which promised to introduce a “freedom of worship” amendment on Thursday in the Chamber. After the backtrack promised on Sunday evening, immediately after the IEC gave it the thumbs down, Conte is now looking for a way to resolve the dispute with the IEC, a particularly dramatic one for him, as the IEC had been one of his mainstays up to now, fundamental for the validation of the measures coming from Palazzo Chigi.

But this mess is not an easy one to untangle. The Minister of Health, who on Sunday had imposed the extension of the ban on Masses at the last minute, in agreement with the head of the PD delegation, Dario Franceschini, remains very opposed to the reopening of the churches. The doctors are opposed as well—including Catholic ones. “We will resolve this in 4-5 days,” promised the Minister of Health, Paola De Micheli. A protocol will be finalized, but it is unlikely that May 4 will be the date when the churches open up. Perhaps the 18th, more likely the 11th.

The other bone of contention was that of the “close relations.” Once again, reveling in the novel course the political debate is taking, marked by outrageous hyperbole, the Lega denounced “the ban on the freedom to love,” while Renzi accused “the state, which cannot decide whom we should see.” In the end, there was a clarification from the Palazzo Chigi: “By close relations we also mean couples and stable relationships.” Which, however, can mean literally anything. “It doesn’t mean you can go to friends’ houses or have parties,” Conte pointed out in an impromptu press conference from Lombardy, which he visited Monday for the first time since the beginning of the epidemic. When asked about why he had avoided the region, the head of the government justified himself by saying that “in the most acute phase of the health emergency, my presence here would have been a hindrance.”

With such ambiguous provisions, chaos is the likely outcome, unless the common sense of the citizens manages to hold it back. But it must also be said that it was not easy for Conte to act any differently. All the evidence points to the country not being ready for the restart, as the minimum conditions listed by Minister Speranza are not yet fulfilled, the risk is high, and a second lockdown would be fatal. But the condition of the economy is equally critical, and the prime minister is being forced to compensate the recovery of manufacturing activities with the limitations on other movement and the postponement of the opening of shops, even at the cost of disappointing the many who expected much more from the fateful date of May 4. In a similar vein, in order to temper the disappointment, he could not avoid giving an opening, that of “visits to close relations,” even though he knew he was putting the still-necessary social distancing in the balance.

To a large extent, the problem becomes even thornier regarding the issue of transport. On Monday, Minister De Micheli made it clear that the capacity of vehicles will have to be half as large as usual, that it will be necessary to cover one’s nose and mouth in some way, preferably with masks if they are available, and that masks could be provided near the ticket offices for this purpose. “660 million masks will be on sale for 38 cents each,” Commissioner Arcuri promised. For the time being, however, the pharmacists have taken the wrongheaded decision of setting the maximum price at 50 cents, less than the cost they paid to acquire them. The issue of travel to second homes has been clarified: it will not be allowed.

The most painful provision, however, is the reopening of shops no earlier than on May 18, and of bars and restaurants on June 1. From the point of view of health, this is understandable. From the point of view of the survival of businesses, it risks being fatal. Many of them—in the tens of thousands—will not be able to reopen. Accordingly, massive economic support from the state would be essential. But even from that point of view, things are moving slow. The probability of passing the April decree before May is close to zero.

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