Italy revs economy, reopens bars, cinema and more

Italy, Rome: On Monday, bars, pubs, cinemas, and concert halls reopened throughout Italy, providing a boost to coronavirus-affected companies, while parliament debated the government's 230-billion-euro ($266-billion) EU-funded recovery plan.

After months of enforced stop-start restrictions to handle the second and third waves of Covid-19, Italy hopes that this latest easing will signal the start of a more usual summer.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi admitted to taking a "calculated risk" with the reopenings, despite the fact that infection rates and intensive care admissions have decreased, but Covid-19 deaths continue to climb by hundreds every day, totaling more than 119,000.

Three-quarters of the regions were moved to the lower-risk "yellow" category on Monday, allowing bars and restaurants to resume table service outside – including, for the first time in six months, in the evening, while a 10 p.m. curfew remains in effect.

"Finally!" said Daniele Vespa, the 26-year-old head waiter at Baccano, a restaurant near Rome's Trevi Fountain, as he made preparations for the return of customers.

"Hopefully... we can soon reopen inside as well," he told AFP, adding: "It's the start of a return to normality."

Cinemas, theatres, and concert halls will now open at 50% capacity, with swimming pools, gyms, sporting activities, and theme parks the following suit by July 1.

The Beltrade cinema in Milan was the first to reopen after a six-month hiatus, with a special 06:00 a.m. screening of "Caro Diario," a classic Italian film from the 1990s.

Despite the fact that people had to get up before dawn to see it, the show was sold out.

"I went with my husband, and it was great to be back together in a cinema and do this crazy thing," Francesca Pierangeli, one of the 82 people who got a seat, told AFP.

As Italy fights its worst recession since World War II, Draghi has been under extreme pressure to relax restrictions, including far-right leader Matteo Salvini and increasingly vocal anti-lockdown street protests.

The vaccine program is gaining traction, with 17.75 million jabs administered and 5.2 million citizens completely vaccinated in a population of about 60 million, however, experts are skeptical that this would be enough to avert a new health epidemic.

"Clearly if the gradual reopening is interpreted as a 'free-for-all', a new surge in infections risks compromising the summer season," warned Nino Cartabellotta, head of the GIMBE Foundation health think tank.

Already over the weekend, throngs of people took advantage of the warm weather and crammed the streets of central Rome and other towns, many without masks. In the capital, police shut down a shopping street and a few overcrowded squares.

'Reforms that are needed'

Italy was the first European country to be struck by the pandemic in early 2020, and it is still one of the worst affected, with the highest recorded death toll and one of the deepest recessions in the EU.

Last year, the economy shrank by an astounding 8.9 percent, and a million jobs were lost.

Italy is banking on a 222.1 billion-euro investment and reform program financed mostly by the European Union. The EU's 750 billion-euro post-pandemic recovery fund is the most generous to Rome.

Draghi will formally introduce the program he hopes will accelerate growth by 3.6 percentage points by 2026 in parliament on Monday, ahead of a Friday deadline to send the package to Brussels.

The government described the initiative as a "historic intervention" that would fix the damage caused by the pandemic and resolve the economy's "structural vulnerabilities" while placing it on a more sustainable footing.

Infrastructure, especially high-speed railways, is a priority, as is renewable energy, including hydrogen power projects, investment in internet services, and digitalization of government administration.

There will be funds to assist women and young people who have suffered disproportionately as a result of the pandemic, with about 40% going to historically underperform southern Italy.

Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank, has also emphasized the importance of tax reform and speeding up the slow-moving justice system.

Disputes over the budget brought down the previous prime minister and his coalition, prompting Draghi to be parachuted in to lead a national unity government in February.

According to Natixis economist Jesus Castillo, his strong support in parliament "gives him considerable space for maneuver to deliver the requisite reforms."

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