ROME – Italians strolled in the park, grabbed take-out cappuccinos and paid their respects to the astonishing number of dead Monday as the European epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic gingerly woke up from the continent’s first and longest lockdown.
Greece, Portugal and Belgium also eased virus restrictions, while Britain was poised to soon overtake Italy as the country with the most confirmed COVID-19 dead in Europe.
Officially, 4.4 million Italians were allowed to go back to work at construction sites, factories and manufacturing jobs deemed to be at lowest risk for contagion. Traffic ticked up in city centers, commuter and long-distance trains sold out and more people ventured out after restrictions on movement eased for the first time since Italy locked down March 11.
“We are being careful, trying not to do too many things, but at least we are finally outside and breathing some fresh air,” said Daniele Bianchi as he strolled through Rome’s Villa Borghese park.
Across the Tiber in Villa Sciarra, Valerio Pileri stood by the stroller as his 2 1/2 year-old grandson scampered in the grass.
“He was going around and around again on the terrace with his bike, but it’s not the same as the villa,” Pileri said.
Protective masks were ubiquitous — even the Swiss Guards started wearing them at the Vatican — and were required on public transport and inside cafes, restaurants and gelato shops that opened for take-out service.
But not all businesses that could reopen did, a sign that some owners decided it wasn’t worth it to serve a handful of customers or hadn’t managed to implement new social distancing and hygiene standards.
And any newfound sense of freedom was clouded by the first comprehensive reckoning of just how great a toll COVID-19 had taken.
Italy’s national statistics agency reported Monday that 49% more people died in March than the average over the past five years, with some 25,354 excess deaths registered from Feb. 20-March 31, the height of Italy’s outbreak.
Since only 13,700 of those deaths were confirmed positive for the virus, Italy’s official COVID-19 toll of 29,000 is likely off by more than 10,000. The other deaths likely involved infected people who were never tested or people who died as an indirect result of the pandemic because the hospital system collapsed in the north, ISTAT said.
For the first time in two months, Italians were able to honor some of those dead with funerals, though attendance was limited to 15 people. Cemeteries also reopened for visits, with mourners told to keep their distances from one another.
“I feel a bit out of my comfort zone but my daughter is here, and as soon as the cemetery opened I came,” said Paola Lazzaro as she visited her daughter’s grave at Rome’s Flaminio cemetery.
In Milan, passengers on sold-out south-bound trains had their temperatures taken before they boarded, and commuter Gabriella Fusca said she felt safe making the trip to Rome.
“All the distances were respected. Everybody was wearing face masks,” she said.
Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala praised the morning commuters, saying access to the metro had to be blocked just a few times and that some buses had to skip stops because they were too full to take on new passengers.
‘’Milanesi behaved in a very diligent way,’’ he said.
Luxury carmaker Ferrari relaunched production Monday, after purchasing 800 blood tests for Ferrari employees and their families to use on a voluntary basis. The company is also developing its own contact tracing system, so workers can determine if they have been in contact with anyone who tested positive.
Italy is also planning to test 150,000 with a pilot antibody test and roll out a mobile contact-tracing application, but both initiatives are behind schedule and missed the start of the country's economic reboot.
In Greece, after 42 days of lockdown, people were no longer required to send an SMS or carry a self-written permit justifying why they were outdoors. Greece has been credited with keeping its number of deaths and critically ill down with its early lockdown, registering just 144 victims and 37 in intensive care.
Some businesses were also allowed to re-open, with hairdressers appearing among the most popular.
Konstantina Harisiadi installed plexiglass barriers at the reception and manicure stations and a sign read “Silence is security” to discourage chit-chat and limit the potential for virus transmission.
“Things are different. There’s no spontaneity - we can’t greet each other, speak, laugh. We’re entering a new era,” she said.
The sentiment was shared in Italy.
“The future is a big question mark,” said Gianni Berra as he served his first cappuccinos of the day to a take-out only customers in Rome. “The normal welcoming bar environment will not be there anymore."
Elena Becatoros reported from Athens, Greece. AP writers Colleen Barry in Milan and Trisha Thomas, Francesco Sportelli and Paolo Santalucia contributed from Rome.