Shortly after 9:30 p.m., the two squares in the center of the Roman neighborhood of San Lorenzo are empty. This meeting place is not one of those that are closed for administrative purposes, as established by the ordinance of Mayor Virginia Raggi for Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Madonna de’ Monti, Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere and the pedestrian island of Pigneto.
However, the only two groups of people who are moving between Piazza dell’Immacolata and Largo degli Osci are about fifteen traffic wardens. Their cars are parked by the side of the road, with their flashing lights on. “We weren’t here yesterday, we don’t know if there were people,” some of them tell us.
At the nearby bar, young people are having drinks—seated at tables. After 6 p.m., you can only eat while seated. It is Friday evening, and the neighborhood that has been the base camp of the red Autonomia Operaia and then the melting pot of the experiences of the social centers and the exuberance of the tens of thousands of students of the nearby Sapienza University looks nothing like itself.
Many university students haven’t returned to rent rooms in the city, squeezed between exorbitant costs, distance learning and lockdown risks. A resident tells us that over the last days, nighttime traffic has rapidly decreased, in direct proportion to the curve of contagions.
Tonight, San Lorenzo can hardly be distinguished from the rest of the city. It looks just like Piazza dei Cinquecento, in front of Termini Station, where you can hardly see anyone two hours before the curfew.
Going down on Via Nazionale, which connects Piazza Repubblica and Piazza Venezia, the emptiness is interrupted only by the tables of a corner bar, where you can eat and drink while maintaining distancing.
Campo de’ Fiori, a short distance away, is one of the four spaces subject to the access ban by the Roman city government: from 9 p.m. to midnight, you cannot enter the square, except in order to eat in bars or restaurants.
However, all but three establishments in the square are closed in protest. “Protesting like this is of little use, nobody notices it,” says the bartender at the Cocktail Bar. “Tonight, we practically didn’t work at all, but the number of people had already been decreasing before: last weekend there were very few. There is fear. There are no tourists. We don’t even work during the day, with the market.”
Around 10 p.m., there are no customers in the adjacent historic Fahrenheit 451 bookstore. The employees are hardly talkative either. A little further on is the Farnese Cinema. Gianni Titozzi has worked here since 1965: “55 years. I have never seen this square so empty. COVID-19 has brought us so many problems. The situation is complicated. The box office receipts have fallen. These measures hurt us a lot. But of course, it is better to close down before we catch the virus.”
In the nearby district of Trastevere, where the nightlife (the so-called movida) has quieted down to nothing, the central Piazza Trilussa has been sealed off with police tape. As one arrives from Ponte Sisto, it all looks like a Christmas tree, dotted with the green lights of electric scooters parked everywhere and the blue lights of the armored cars of the carabinieri.
Apart from the few square meters surrounded by police tape and manned by agents, life is flowing around as during the last days, in an abnormal routine. A pizza maker behind the square tells us: “Three weeks ago it was full, two weeks ago less so, last weekend there was hardly anyone. Today, six people came in.” He is complaining about the absence of tables, but the quality of the supplì on offer doesn’t encourage attendance either.
A little before 11 p.m., in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere there are just seven young people sitting around the fountain (with masks and respecting distancing), a tourist trying to pop a wheelie with an electric scooter and a carabinieri patrol watching the scene.
Around the corner, the cheerful ruckus of the historic San Calisto Bar is just a memory. Patrons are sitting around the tables outside. The last two free seats are inside, in a room next to the bathroom, under posters for the Roma soccer team.
“The main problem for us bartenders, more than the curfew, is not being able to serve at the bar after 6 p.m.,” says Marcello Forti, owner of the bar, where he has been working since 1969. “The revenue is now down to less than a quarter. There are nine families living from this business. With the first wave, with the first closures, there was some money saved. But the second one is harder: we are already scraping the barrel.”
Regardless, the contagions have spiked and the strategies adopted so far are not working. What if another lockdown is needed? “The government should immediately ensure the suspension of taxes, the guarantee of rent and the coverage of wages for staff,” Forti tells us, “otherwise it will be a disaster.”
At an outdoor table, some fifth-year students from the Mamiani High School are drinking the last beer. Before talking, they put the bottle down and put on masks. “We’re finishing and going. The curfew begins today, but at the end of last Saturday, it wasn’t very different. The bars closed early anyway. There were no parties. There was nothing to do. The other weekend, we saw more people, but after midnight almost everyone went home,” they tell us, inconsolable.
It can’t be fun to be 18 years old in the time of COVID.
At 11:23 p.m., almost all the restaurants are taking in their chairs and tables. In Via di San Cosimato, under the plaque that marks a building where Alberto Sordi used to live, the Bangladeshi waiters are cleaning up: there is no one left.
Meanwhile, the city is entering a strange frenzy. There isn’t the charm of the first time around, when the lockdown arrived in the capital with the ICUs half empty and the contagions still low. There are no Italian flags in the windows, and even the banners saying “Everything will be fine” have mostly disappeared.
Yesterday, there were 605 new cases in Rome and 1,389 in Lazio. There are 18,531 people currently affected by the virus in the region. The official numbers say that 131 are hospitalized in intensive care.
By now, everyone directly knows someone who has fallen ill, and the race to get tested has led to miles-long queues at the drive-in centers.
Will five hours of nighttime confinement, during the time generally dedicated to rest, be enough to reverse the course? How many people would be infected between midnight and 5 a.m. anyway? Will it be enough to ban a nightlife already deadened by boredom and fear?
Our impression is that the magnitude of the word “curfew,” with its warlike and military echoes, can hardly lead to effects of equal magnitude. It would take at least two weeks to evaluate this, but in the meantime, more rigid and less symbolic measures are looming.
A few minutes before the fateful hour, when the curfew order from Mayor Raggi, which covered just four places in the nightlife district, will go out of effect and be replaced by the one passed by the President of Lazio, Nicola Zingaretti, valid throughout the region, the last cars still around are pushing the gas pedal in the race to get home.
On Ponte Milvio, only the padlocks of the lovers still remain. In the side streets, bored policemen are trying to convince young people who are captivated by the cameras of RAI journalists that it’s time to go home. One of them is running with a hood on his head and a mask on his face on the side of the river, touching the marble.
After midnight, silence has fallen along the Lungotevere. Everything is still. There is a carabinieri vehicle and a garbage truck at the traffic lights. Via del Muro Torto is empty, both inside and outside the underpass.
Around Termini Station, under the concrete arches and above the hot air ducts, those who don’t have a home to go back to still remain. Bundles of people dot the perimeter of the geographical center of the capital. They light cigarettes between the pylons of the Pettinelli underpass. They stretch all the way down to where the Rome-Giardinetti railway begins.