Via Wolf Street

Not so locked down. But there are real consequences for people and businesses.

By MC01, a frequent commenter on WOLF STREET:

I currently live in Italy, right in the middle of the “orange zone” that the government declared due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The publisher of Wolf Street, Wolf Richter, asked me to write about the issues relating to this emergency, so brace yourself for some hard truth.

In an “orange zone,” movements are restricted, but there are many exceptions. These restrictions, in terms of getting around, going to work, etc., actually mean little. Social activity, however, is much more limited. Bars and restaurants must close at 6 P.M. and shopping malls must remain closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Here are some brick-and-mortar retail stores that have been affected by the lockdown:

All concerts, sport events and theatrical performances have been suspended, medical examinations have been restricted to emergency cases and the chronically ill. Nursing homes are completely off-limits; only the closest relatives are let in, and then only in case a patient’s condition worsen to where they become “desperately ill.”

But so far, the most critical measure has been shutting down schools. While there are no children or young adults in critical condition, it’s widely suspect they may help spread Covid-19 around as asymptomatic carriers; hence the precautionary measure.

Now universities have been shut down as well. Saturday evening saw a mad scramble in the big university cities – Bologna, Padua and my alma mater, Parma – by students from Southern Italy to get back home before new quarantine measures came into effect.

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Businesses won’t feel much of a difference in their operations except having to give leave to employees with small children who need to stay home and look after them. Deliveries are completely unaffected. We just got an express delivery from Germany on Monday morning.

However, many companies have restrictions and precautions of some kind in place now: for example, GLS delivery drivers must wear hand masks and gloves “at all times” while making their rounds. Travelling for work is for all purposes unrestricted except inside the “red zone” (the original area of the contagion). But visiting foreign customers right now may be a tad complicated. I’ll keep you updated as soon as I find out more.

Now for some “on the ground” reporting.

In the first chaotic few days after the original Covid-19 outbreak, the only items that disappeared from the shelves were rusks (a popular hard, dry biscuit or a twice-baked bread) and crackers. These are the empty rusk shelves; I took this photo during the first week of the emergency:

Intriguingly, vacuum-sealed white rice, a staple food with an extremely long shelf life, has never been in short supply. And now both hardtack and rusks are back on the shelves. We won’t starve to death at least.

But as the number of cases increased, other items have started disappearing from the shelves: facemasks, hand sanitizer, paracetamol (generic medication in Tylenol). IKEA reported even liquid soap dispensers are sold out. But intriguingly enough, disposable nitrile and latex gloves are in plentiful supply, highlighting some curious priorities among hoarders of all stripes.

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Traffic is down, but not as much as it may be expected. This is usually an extremely busy street:

The area where I live is not exactly an area known for its high living, but right now any reason to go out after 7 p.m. is effectively gone. Needless to say, the only Chinese restaurant in my area has been closed for over a week now.

This is the parking lot of one of my vendors, usually packed:

But what happens if somebody you know is diagnosed with Covid-19?

Last Saturday evening, I received a phone call: the CFO of a company I work with had been hospitalized due to troubles with breathing. He had already been tested for Covid-19 but it would have taken “at least 24 hours” for the results to arrive. Had he tested positive, everybody he had been in contact with over the previous 14 days would have to be tested as well and, even if asymptomatic, quarantined at home for 14 days. Fortunately, this turned out to be “just” ordinary pneumonia, a side effect of a small surgical operation.

The exact origins of this outbreak in Italy remains a mystery, in spite of much idle speculation in the media. But the call for “extraordinary” fiscal and monetary measures started long before the first victim from Covid-19 was confirmed by health authorities.

But Italy’s economy has been in trouble for a long time.

Manufacturing had already been in a worsening slump for several months, so the Covid-19 is not the cause for whatever horrific figures will be reported at the end of the first quarter but merely the catalyzer.

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The big problem is that Italy, thanks in no small part to ECB largesse, has been in full stimulus mode since 2016: Public debt stands at a hefty 135% of GDP and corporate debt is around 165% of GDP.

There are countless desperate attempts to push both corporations (including my booming evil empire) and individual citizens deeper into debt to goose GDP figures: just today I got in my mailbox an offer for an unsecured corporate loan repayable over 84 months and yesterday another for a mortgage at 0.48% plus Euribor-12. This tells me exactly where priorities stand at the moment. By MC01, a frequent commenter on WOLF STREET

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