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Washing a shirt in pandemic-hit Rome

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Rome (AFP)

How essential is a clean shirt?

This may not be a question to bother too many Romans at the moment as they watch the authorities lock down virtually everything in a bid to beat the coronavirus pandemic.

But it can be a very real problem for the few tourists still stuck in the Italian capital wondering when airlines might resume services to Rome.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took to the airwaves on Wednesday for what has become a ritual late-night announcement of what will and will not be allowed to stay open on Italy's streets the next day.

"All shops will be closed except for basic necessities, such as pharmacies and food stores," Conte told the nation of 60 million.

"Bars, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and canteen services will close. Home delivery is allowed."

The situation in the normally tourist-friendly Mediterranean country is becoming increasingly alarming.

More than 800 have died and nearly 12,500 have been infected in just over two weeks.

Since Monday alone, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Italy is equal to that for the rest of the world -- including China.

But Conte's daily pronouncements on television are beginning to confuse some people.

One hotel manager smiled kindly when asked by a guest a few hours after Conte's TV appearance whether the laundry service still worked.

"I will check. Honestly, I do not know," he said with a shake of the head.

"You know Conte, he changes things."

- Open or not? -

A follow-up enquiry with the hotel management desk was equally fruitless.

"We do not know," a different hotel manager said with a slight note of exasperation.

Hotels are obviously not the only places for tourists to get their washing done in Rome.

But confusion reigns over whether the various laundromats located around the city centre are open or not.

"Clo-sed," snapped one manager in his best English over the phone.

Conte's rules do provide exemptions for laundromats and similar services.

The new detailed list of "essential" businesses that can stay open explicitly includes "laundry and the cleaning of textiles and fur", "industrial laundry activities" and "dry cleaners".

But shopkeepers seem keener to roll down the shutters than to read the fine print of the latest government updates.

And that could spell bad news for Conte and his efforts to keep the Italian economy running during a national emergency.

Most analysts expect it Italy to tip into recession over the next few months and some think it might be shrinking already.

The laundromats might or might not open up again once everyone understands the new rules.

But "right now, we do not know what will be," says the hotel manager.

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