What it's like to be in Venice during coronavirus lockdown

"It was astonishing. I felt as though I had fallen back into the time that we were all impersonating."

(Image credit: Illustrated | Mirifada/iStock, ANDREA PATTARO/AFP via Getty Images)

Coronavirus has come to Italy, where 528 cases of infection and 12 deaths have been reported as of Thursday. In the northern part of the country, a dozen towns are on lockdown, with fines to be levied against anyone caught coming or going. But perhaps the most drastic measures have been taken in Venice, where the city's iconic Carnevale celebrations ahead of the Lenten fast were shut down three days early.

As Italy's plight has unfolded, I've been fascinated by updates from Venice tweeted by Susannah Black, an editor of Plough Quarterly and Mere Orthodoxy. A native New Yorker, Black traveled to Venice to be "caught in the meshes of a merry throng" ahead of Lent's somber season — only for the lockdown to end public gaieties before Mardi Gras arrived. We spoke about her experience of the atmosphere in Venice this week and what it's like to travel in Italy while coronavirus spreads.

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So you came to Venice for Carnevale, and Carnevale is canceled — parties forbidden! — over coronavirus. What is the mood in the city? What are the practical implications of the lockdown?

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It changed from day to day — even hour to hour. I'd gotten there on Friday afternoon, and been outfitted in my first costume by my friend, the writer Tara Isabella Burton, who's the one who introduced me to Carnevale; this is her fourth year. That first day, coronavirus was a distant news item; the city during Carnevale is packed with life, the plaza in front of San Marco full of music, the Basilica itself brightly lit. And it stayed that way through the house-party that night and the formal party the night after.

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But I think it was late on Saturday that we started to hear rumors: several cases, some towns nearby "on lockdown." That was the phrase; it wasn't clear what it meant. Sunday, I woke up and went outside to get a coffee, and there were knots of carabinieri, city police, as well as the dark-uniformed state police, everywhere. They had one of the streets near me blocked off, and some of them were wearing antiviral masks. I asked whether this was coronavirus. "No coronavirus here," the one I spoke to said.

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I believed him. But then we started to hear other things: that there were two cases in Venice, and then four cases, and then more than 30 in the Veneto, the region, and 220 across Northern Italy. And we started to be ... uneasy. A higher and higher percentage of people had face masks on — antiviral masks, I mean — but just as many still had their Carnevale masks on. I started noticing the plague-doctors' masks, though, more and more — they're a popular option for Carnevale anyway, and easily available — for sale at every tourist shop. Antiviral masks, though, were out — the pharmacies all had "niente maschere" ("no masks") signs on the doors.

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What we were uneasy about was quarantine. But then the other rumor started: that the city had canceled Carnevale, and that at midnight that night, all public and private parties must end.

I'm not sure we believed them. "Is it true?" my friend asked. "Well, we'll see. Who knows what will happen at midnight?" another friend responded. She had brought a plague-doctor's mask with her to the party, to change into at midnight.

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At midnight, the bells in San Marco rang, and, in fact, public celebrations, the public parties, did, apparently, stop.

On Monday, the city started to feel empty: people really were leaving, rather than ramping up the celebrations in advance of the climactic party on Tuesday night. It was most striking as evening approached. All the ordinary stores were open, and all the ordinary restaurants, but the bandshell in San Marco was dark, and most of the caffes on the square were shut.

I saw a group of students singing in front of the Basilica. Several carabinieri walked up to them and spoke to the leader, who asked for a little more time. He led the students in a prayer and then they dispersed — even that kind of public gathering was forbidden.

Half the people still out, though, were still in costume, in masks.

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Public gatherings, I imagine, are easily dispersed, but are private parties really canceled? Or did you see some partying on in secret, judging it worth the risk (or the risk less serious than authorities say)?

I could not possibly comment on such a question.

Your Mere Orthodoxy travelogue of your stay in Venice includes an account of the city's origination of our concept of "quarantine," which dates to the era of plague. Was it uncanny to experience what seems like the closest recent analogue to the plague in a place with that history? (From my vantage point, the coronavirus threat feels very distant, even unreal, though, per The Atlantic, I'm apparently likely to come down with it eventually.)

It was astonishing. I felt as though I had fallen back into the time that we were all impersonating; the make-believe started feeling too real. It's also a reminder that globalization isn't anything new: Plague hit Venice hard because it was, and is, a port city, a city that has always welcomed and depended on trade and even tourism.

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Reports I've read suggest the coronavirus situation in Italy changed very quickly, from "nothing to worry about" to "stay in your homes" overnight. How swift did that transition seem to you? When you arrived, was there any indication — say, warnings at customs that your travel plans might be forced to change — of what was to come?

Not a hint, on Friday midday when I arrived. It wasn't even in my mind: I was busy being dazzled by this first visit, and if I was thinking about the city's ephemerality or mortality, it had to do with flooding and climate change.

Now you've left Venice for Trieste and are planning to return home to the States via Vienna, which is only possible if Austria allows you to enter from Italy. How are your travel prospects looking?

I've got a couple of backup plans, and have learned the hard way to book flexible and refundable tickets. I'm still planning to be out of the states until March 20, but may go to England for a week, early next week, rather than stay here. Assuming I'm able to leave by then. Meanwhile, I'm a journalist in Italy in a time of plague, so I'll do what we do, and try to tell the stories I see.

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Lent began yesterday, on Ash Wednesday. Does the season strike you differently after such an unusual Carnevale? Has coronavirus lockdown changed your perspective on this year's fast?

It felt — the early end of Carnevale felt — like a penance more than a public health measure. Churches were closed for services [Wednesday], which is I suppose wise. But I don't think that collective penitence, and prayer, would be a bad addition to quarantine, hand washing, and research towards a cure.

For more on Black's experience in Italy, read her essay, "Death in Venice," at Mere Orthodoxy. Follow her on Twitter at @suzania.

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