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Italy's restaurants, shops caught between rock and hard place

A woman walks her dog past Harry's Bar on Via Veneto in central Rome, which was closed despite an easing of the coronavirus lockdown
A woman walks her dog past Harry's Bar on Via Veneto in central Rome, which was closed despite an easing of the coronavirus lockdown Tiziana FABI AFP
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Rome (AFP)

The reopening of Italy's restaurants, cafes and stores earlier this week brought hopes of a return to normality for many Italians after a punishing two-month coronavirus lockdown.

But the picture is not so bright.

In a sign of further trouble ahead for Italy's economy, many of these establishments remain shut as insufficient funds, new sanitary rules or a lack of clientele represent serious brakes to reopening.

"Were I to open tomorrow, I wouldn't have one client," said Pietro Lepore, owner of Harry's Bar on Rome's tony Via Veneto.

"There are 12 luxury hotels on the street. Sixty percent of my business comes from their clientele and they're all closed," Lepore, whose 24 employees are all furloughed, told AFP.

It is the same from Rome to Florence and Venice, where the spokeswoman for the city's shopkeepers' association, Cristina Giussani, mused whether cafes and restaurants should open "for seagulls and pigeons" given the utter lack of tourists.

Italy's economy is highly dependent on tourism. The sector makes up 13 percent of the country's output while employing about 4.2 million Italians, or 15 percent of jobs in Italy.

Some are counting on the reopening of Italy's borders to Europeans in early June as a crucial turning point. But many wonder whether tourists will feel comfortable enough to travel, or whether they'll have the money to do so.

Italy's small and medium-sized business association, Confesercenti, found in a survey published on Saturday that nearly a third of the million establishments allowed to reopen on Monday said they would not.

- 'Insurmountable problem' -

For 68 percent, reopening would not be profitable. Thirteen percent said they had health and safety concerns and an equal number said government directives were too vague.

"For businesses, reopening is a race against time and obstacles," wrote the group, which called for "direct economic aid."

"Entrepreneurs fear the impact of the rigidity of the guidelines on activities, and remaining squeezed between the increase in operating costs and the foreseeable drop in revenues," Confesercenti said.

New regulations - which can result fines if not followed - are particularly hard to respect for smaller establishments, Confesercenti's Valerio Maccari said.

"The typical Roman trattoria, for example, does not have much room and in this case ensuring physical distance becomes an insurmountable problem," he said.

The rules include sanitary measures such as setting up tables with 1 metre (3.3 feet) of distance between them and twice-daily cleaning of the establishment, as well as masks and gloves for workers.

But restaurants also have to contend with more paperwork, such as taking down names and phone numbers of customers for easier tracking in the case of an eventual coronavirus case.

In Rome, restaurant owner Tatjana Pavelic said earlier this week she was opening just one of the four restaurants she operates along a usually busy street leading to the Pantheon.

Tourists were nowhere to be seen, but her lunch traffic from local clients was also disrupted because of people still working from home, she said.

- Bankrupt tomorrow? -

"We have so many clients who work in offices," said Pavelic. "And tourism hasn't started even for Italians."

Pavelic said she had asked for a reduction on her rents, which are based on the amount of foot traffic, but was still awaiting an answer.

Public anger is mounting.

Throughout the capital, protest posters are seen in many shop windows: "Without government help, we can NOT reopen".

In Milan on Saturday, small shop owners and taxi drivers held a protest, saying the government had offered no concrete measures to help them. Many are calling for a hiatus in taxes to help them get through the difficult period.

"I'm not opening today to go bankrupt tomorrow," read some of their banners.

"All of us here want to work," shouted one protestor into a megaphone. "But we need support to do so."

A survey by the Italian Federation of Public Establishments (Fipe) on April 4 found that 96 percent of bars, restaurants and similar businesses considered governmental support insufficient.

They cited the need for immediate liquidity to cover the shortfalls in revenue, or credit with zero or subsidized interest, as well as the cancellation of taxes due.

At the other end of the Italian boot, in Avola, Sicily, restaurant owner Gianpaolo Molisena has decided to remain closed for now, one of the approximately 5,000 such establishments keeping their doors shut in Sicily, a quarter of the total.

Were he to reopen, it would cost Molisena "100 (euros) to collect 30," he said. The restaurant usually employs six people.

"Besides, the spirit of the restaurant is not there, the charm of dining with friends ... is lost with all these rules," he said.

"The customers feel under surveillance."

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