Via Financial Times

At the door of the PBA stainless steel factory in northern Italy, employees check their temperatures, change their shoes, walk on a special decontaminating carpet and put on their masks — or full medical personal protective equipment if they work in production.

Meetings are banned, and the quintessentially Italian pausa caffè — or mid-morning coffee break to chat with colleagues over an espresso — is prohibited. The coffee machines have been distanced to keep workers apart.

PBA, or Profilati Brevettati in Alluminio, has gone back to work, but it is far from back to normal as the facility in Tezze sul Brenta, in the Veneto region, and its workers emerge from the strictures of lockdown and the trauma of one of the most serious coronavirus outbreaks in the world.

Thermal scanners take employees’ temperatures at the entrance to the PBA factory
Thermal scanners take employees’ temperatures at the entrance to the PBA factory © PBA
Employees in full personal protective equipment at work in the factory
Employees in full personal protective equipment at work in the factory © PBA

“The way we do things in the factory has been turned upside down . . . Unlike others, we are economically stable [but] our daily habits have radically changed. Normal life still seems light-years away,” said Francesca Masiero, president of the family company founded by her father Luciano in 1974.

The 48-year-old executive has been sharing her thoughts, doubts and hopes with the Financial Times as part of a series of stories recounting the pandemic crisis in Italy’s economic heartland. After the shock of the lockdown and the company’s closure in March — the first since its inception — this second chapter focuses on the company’s struggle to adapt to the new normal.

PBA, a manufacturer of door and window handles and one of Italy’s four million small and medium sized companies, has been lucky so far. The company has not had to cut jobs and none of its 120 employees has tested positive for the virus. But Italy’s economic outlook is sobering. Unlike other European countries, it never fully recovered from the eurozone crisis. The IMF predicts that output will contract by more than 9 per cent in 2020, tumbling to levels last seen in 1995.

A seismic shift in economic outlook. Chart showing projected annual change in GDP in 2020, by date of forecast (%) of UK, Germany, France Spain and Italy

Cautious reopening

As the lockdown eased on May 4, the isolation that Italians had lived with for weeks lifted. But while many in central and southern Italy have embraced their new-found freedoms, in the northern regions like Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto, where the vast majority of deaths occurred, people are still afraid. So far Italy’s death toll stands at 32,877, while 1,878 have died in Veneto alone.

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“There is still widespread nervousness and fear because the virus could come back . . . and that could be the finishing blow for our country’s economy,” Ms Masiero said.

At PBA, workers only talk to each other via WhatsApp, email or phone — or sometimes “we just shout at each other from room to room to catch up on our personal lives”, she said.

Francesca Masiero, president of PBA, in her office
Francesca Masiero, president of PBA, in her office © PBA

Eva Binotto, PBA’s marketing manager, has had to move her workstation from the office she used to share with three others to the showroom hall. “Everyone is gradually readjusting to the new workflow, but it still feels a little weird. Sometimes we used to be four people next to each other, elbow to elbow, in front of one screen, working as if we were one,” she said.

On their way to work, employees have been advised not to stop anywhere. No one has been inside the little deli outside the factory for weeks. “I know the owner of the place. Seeing him there with the door locked and no clients is really sad and painful,” Ms Masiero said.

Since the first signs of the outbreak emerged in China in January, the company has progressively adapted to social distancing, stockpiled masks and PPE, and expanded remote working as Italy imposed lockdown measures from March 9.

Chart showing that Italy’s northern regions bore the brunt of its Covid outbreak

Ms Masiero managed to reopen part of her business at the beginning of April before others in Italy in order to make steel handles for disabled people in hospital bathrooms, labelled as essential by the government.

When the government lifted restrictions on industries across the country in May, PBA restarted its normal production, reaching 80 per cent of its pre-outbreak capacity by the middle of the month.

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Ms Masiero hopes the company will be able to go back to full capacity within the next two months, thanks to orders from clients in Germany and the US, its main markets.

A traumatic time

Besides the consequences to the economy, many worry about the psychological wounds left by the pandemic. Recovering from the trauma of living under isolation, economic uncertainty and, for some people, the death of friends and loved ones, could take a long time.

“The first days after the lockdown was relaxed were surreal, with the streets still empty and many still scared. I don’t think people will have to be told to continue self-isolating for a while if they are able to do that,” said Erika Bernardi, PBA’s sales manager.

PBA employee Erika Bernardi and her family
PBA employee Erika Bernardi and her family © Erika Bernardi

Social gatherings remain banned and it is mandatory to wear a face mask on public transport and in enclosed public spaces. Schools will stay closed until at least September.

In the nearby medieval hilltop town of Asolo, there is “a sense of bewilderment and loss”, said Francesco Boaro, a resident and PBA’s product technical design director.

“Everyone’s life was shocked by the impossibility of handling a desperate situation, with the hospitals overflowing and the funerals, the uncountable funerals,” Mr Boaro said.

He worries about his children, a 13-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl, both of whom feel alone at home. He also used to volunteer at his church and organise community activities, all of which have been suspended. “An important point of reference for our community has disappeared.” he said. “Life is made of many things apart from work and family.”

With schools still closed, Ms Bernardi has no other choice but to leave her children with their grandparents when she goes to work. “This makes me quite anxious, the elderly are the most fragile who should be protected from the virus and therefore be in isolation.”

View over the hill town of Asolo, in northern Italy’s Veneto region © Peewam/Dreamstime

Erica Anesi, who oversees PBA’s international network of clients and partners, misses travelling — especially to New York, where PBA has an office and where she normally spends 10 days a month. “Even if we have found new ways to get by, when it comes to being creative and exchanging ideas, sharing the same room, being there together becomes essential,” she believes.

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Designing for the future

Now that orders from Italian hospitals that kept PBA’s machinery running during the lockdown have been completed, the company has turned to face the challenges of designing for the post-Covid-19 world.

New designs use more copper components thanks to its natural antimicrobial properties. They have prototyped a handle that can be used with the elbow, to prevent the spread of the virus. “Our new normal is being built around the fear of the disease . . . [and designing] new objects that could help limit the spread of future epidemics,” Ms Masiero said.

Italy’s economy shifts into a low gear. Chart showing Italy's purchasing managers’ index (below 50 = a majority of businesses reporting a contraction)

She thinks countries such as the US may introduce legislation to enforce social distancing in office buildings and public spaces. “We are working like crazy to anticipate all this,” she said.

But not all suppliers will be able to adapt as quickly. The manufacturing industry in Italy, and in Veneto in particular, is made up of a network of small local companies that rely heavily on each other. The vast majority had to close for several weeks, and face uphill battles to get back to full capacity.

“We’ve known some of our suppliers for years and there is a big sense of community and connection here. If even one of them stops, that could create a domino effect on the whole supply chain,” said Ms Anesi.

Outside of work, Ms Masiero dreams of her old life. She would go to Milan for an aperitivo with friends or for the opera, visit the Vatican museums in Rome, or watch a football match and then eat pizza.

“That’s when I’m desperate, when I think about all of those things we are giving up. We are only surviving, not living,” she said.

Graphics by Steve Bernard, Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart and John Burn-Murdoch

Produced by Adrienne Klasa