ROME – For business owners, restaurant managers and small souvenir shops in Italy, the coronavirus outbreak has been nothing short of crippling, with the World Economic Forum recently declaring that Italy is already in the midst of a recession related to the disease.

The threat is existential for businesses operating near the Vatican, which are heavily dependent on the all-but-gone tourist trade, with many facing staggering losses that could force them to close their doors.

The Via Porta Cavalleggeri, a large street running beside the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall leading to St. Peter’s Square that’s usually abuzz with tourists and ex-pats, was eerily quiet Monday, as many shops and restaurants have already locked up.

The typically noisy and bustling area now more closely resembles a ghost-town than one of the world’s most iconic and highly trafficked tourist destinations.

The owner of one restaurant a stone’s throw from the Vatican said his place, usually a staple for tourists and area locals, is almost completely vacant.

“All I have are cancellations,” he told Crux. Lamenting the devastating impact on the Italian economy, he shared a grim outlook for the future.

“We were already on one leg,” he said. “Now we’re on our knees. Soon, we’re going to be flat on our backs.”

Another restaurant on the Porta Cavalleggeri directly across from the Vatican, which serves a largely American tourist clientele, said they are currently operating at a 70 percent loss, and are taking a serious look at their books to determine whether they’ll be forced to close.

“I hope we can survive this,” the owner told Crux, commenting on how fast things have changed. There was a slight drop in sales, she said, after the first coronavirus cases were reported in Milan around two weeks ago. In less than a week this changed to a 50 percent drop after the first positive COVID-19 cases showed up in Rome and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention raised Italy to a level three travel warning.

When American students, their primary source of business, found out last week that they had to return to the United States, they stormed the restaurant the next day to say goodbye, many of them with tears and in disbelief, the owner said. In the last few days, business has dropped to almost nothing, raising the question of why they’re still open.

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Italian schools and universities in Italy were shut down days ago, and on Sunday the government issued a decree announcing further restrictions, including the closure of all theaters, cinemas and museums and the suspension of all public Masses and religious celebrations until April 3.

For many, the move has cemented panic and compounded fears that the current crisis will lead to a global economic recession so severe it will make the 2008 recession seem like child’s play.

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First detected in China’s Hubei province, in the city of Wuhan, the COVID-19 virus has so far spread to at least 60 other countries, with Italy having the highest number of infections and deaths outside of Asia. As of Monday evening, the number of COVID-19 related deaths was 463, with a total of 9,172 cases of infection, marking a significant jump from the weekend.

Matters were made worse on Monday night, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that a series of restrictive measures originally imposed on the 14 northern regions at the center of the outbreak, will as of Tuesday morning be extended to the entire country, meaning that not only are museums, schools, universities, theaters, cinemas, gyms and public pools all closed, but restaurants and pubs are now required to close at 6:00 p.m. every day, meaning most will now miss out on whatever dinner tabs they’d been getting. Sporting events have also been canceled.

In addition, no one is allowed to move from one region to another unless they present a specific form declaring they have a legitimate work reason or a serious reason related to family or health to justify their travel.

While this will certainly be a blow to the entire country, in Rome, the sting is especially acute for businesses that depend on Vatican-related tourism. And with the Vatican’s announcement Saturday that Pope Francis’s public audiences this week are canceled, with the pontiff appearing via livestream rather than down in St Peter’s Square, the losses have only increased.

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In the Vatican’s immediate vicinity, full blocks of shops have already closed, and of those that remain open, several have signs posted informing customers of restrictions and warning them to keep at least three feet of distance between themselves and other people. With the new restrictions, this will likely only get worse.

A sign hangs in a souvenir shop near the Vatican advising customers that employees are wearing medical masks in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (Credit: Elise Ann Allen/Crux.)

Crux spoke to several business owners and managers in the area to gauge the level of impact the coronavirus is having, however, all wished to stay anonymous, since no one wants to admit their business is failing.

One restaurant owner next to a hotel about a 10-minute drive from the Vatican said he’s losing roughly $300,000 in business between now and September after one major tourism company canceled nearly 1,000 reservations. On a day-to-day basis, he’s had to remove tables from the main dining area, so it doesn’t look like they’re empty.

The neighborhood Casa Tra Noi hotel, which normally hosts thousands of pilgrims, tourists and students in a given month, is almost completely deserted.

“We work a lot with the schools, and since the schools are closed, we’ve lost a lot of business,” one employee said, looking out at an empty lobby. No one was working the reception desk, but a sign was posted listing precautions guests are supposed to take – wash your hands frequently, maintain distance with other people, don’t sneeze into your hands but use tissues, etc.

A nearby bar owner said business is down among both tourists and locals. “We’ve lost all the foreigners, because the hotels up and down this street are all empty,” he said, adding that among their regular clients, “many aren’t coming out because they’re afraid.”

The owner of a toyshop near the Vatican, speaking behind a mask and a rope holding a sign explaining the new restrictions, said most of his business is from people around the Vatican, “and right now there’s no clientele.”

A sign hangs in the doorway of a toy shop near the Vatican warning customers to stand at least three feet apart in compliance with restrictions required by the Italian government in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (Credit: Elise Ann Allen/Crux.)

While business is down generally, a few more locals have come into his shop, he said, because with schools closed, children are at home with nothing to do, so some parents have come to buy them a new gadget or two to occupy idle hands.

Souvenir shops are also feeling the loss. Most around the Vatican have already closed, but of the few that are open, staying that way is a day-to-day evaluation.

“I don’t have customers,” one worker said. “Everything along this street is closed. There are no people out, nobody’s buying anything.”

Another shop owner said they have had “very little business,” at times serving just five or six customers a day.

“The Vatican Museums are closed, the Colosseum is closed, everything’s closed, so nobody’s coming by the store. We’re opening late and closing early, because nobody’s here. There are no tourists, everything’s cancelled,” he said, adding, “Honestly, I don’t know if we’ll even be open tomorrow.”

With restrictions tightening, travel down and many tourist groups canceling their trips, it’s likely this sense of hanging on by the skin of one’s teeth won’t go away any time soon.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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