ROME – “Chiuso”. Italy is closed.
A trip to Rome is usually a dream job. But not when your flight lands and you learn that the Prime Minister has just declared all of Italy the “Zona Rosa” or red zone.
The minute we got up last week, cameraman Angela Neil and I received notifications on our phones that the rules that apply to northern Italy are now the law of the entire country: leave your home only for important business; Restaurants have to close at 6pm; All public meetings are canceled.
The first sign that things were going to change on this trip came when we walked through a completely empty customs hall after our body temperatures were checked by security guards with masks and gloves.
When correspondent Matt Bradley arrived from Philadelphia the next morning, the crew of his American Airlines flight gave him a couple of bottles of water when he left the plane. “Nothing is open at the airport,” he was told. “You will need that.”
March 8th was our first full day on site. It felt more like a quiet holiday than a nation under an unprecedented ban.
When we set up our camera position in front of the Colosseum in Rome for a live report on TODAY, people were constantly walking around. Some were locals jogging on the normally congested streets. There were still many foreign tourists visiting the sights. Tour buses drove. Only a few passengers wore masks.
In a nearby street cafe we talked to a British couple on vacation. They joked that they had the whole city to themselves. Our waiter wore surgical gloves and left everyone sitting at least a meter apart. But if you could look beyond that, it would feel like any other warm spring day in Rome.
This lunch would be our last and only meal. From then on, things changed quickly.
On March 9, we interviewed a restaurant owner when he closed his two locations at 6:00 p.m., the new curfew. He complained that he had only made about $ 200 that day and feared that he could not stay afloat in these circumstances.
Just a few hours later, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made another announcement. Reduced hours were no longer enough. From the following day, all stores – including restaurants – would be closed except for groceries, pharmacies and banks.
The change in the atmosphere was dramatic.
The next day, we spent the morning and afternoon preparing live reports for TODAY and MSNBC at the foot of the legendary Spanish Steps, which is usually one of the crowded tourist attractions in Rome.
But now the police faced anyone who stopped for more than a moment.
The tourists were asked to return to their hotels. Locals who stopped to look at the completely empty steps – something they might never have seen in their lives – were asked to leave the street. Many got angry and argued with the police. Quite a few were fined.
We watched a man stop his scooter and take a picture with his cell phone. The police were immediately on him.
Andrea Misseri was the picture of everything in Rome with his classic Vespa scooter, a helmet in the colors of the Italian flag and a scarf around his neck. But that day he broke the law by only walking on his own streets.
“It’s a bit ugly,” he told us after the police let him go. “I won’t pay this fine forever until I die.”
In our case, we have permission to check that we are journalists so that we can move around the city. But the police are still vigilant and are constantly reminding our team to stand one meter apart.
Your memories are welcome. We not only keep a safe distance from each other, we have also laid down basic rules for collecting messages.
We conduct all of our interviews outdoors and do not place microphones on the people we speak to. Instead, we use a so-called boom microphone – a microphone on a telescopic pole that allows you to withdraw far from the topic of the interview. All interviews with medical staff are carried out remotely via Skype or FaceTime. It is for their protection as well as ours.
And we wash our hands all the time.
Despite the crackdown, some people still manage to be outside.
There were the two young butcher workers who paused to throw a soccer ball in the empty square in front of the Pantheon and laughed at the absurdity of the whole thing.
There was the man dancing the entire length of Via della Conciliazione, the main street to St. Peter’s Square, listening to music on his headphones and singing loudly and channeling a joy that seemed so far from this quiet city.
We keep trying to remember what a historic moment it is. Matt and I have been to Rome before, but it’s Angela’s first time. She had planned a vacation this summer when she was traveling through Italy. “I don’t think that will happen,” she joked. Instead, she saw a Rome that few outsiders will ever know.
“It feels like one of those old towns in the hills of Spain,” she said. “It is beautiful and there is nobody there. I cannot imagine that it is this fast-moving city.”