BEIJING – Italy's prime minister announced a sweeping coronavirus quarantine early Sunday, restricting the movements of about a quarter of the country's population in a bid to limit contagions at the epicenter of Europe's outbreak.
Shortly after midnight, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree affecting about 16 million people in the country's prosperous north, including the Lombardy region and at least 15 provinces in neighboring regions. The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.
“For Lombardy and for the other northern provinces that I have listed there will be a ban for everybody to move in and out of these territories and also within the same territory," Conte said. "Exceptions will be allowed only for proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues.”
Around the world, more and more countries were bracing for a big increase in virus cases. Western countries have been increasingly imitating China – where the virus first emerged late last year, and which has suffered the vast majority of infections — by imposing travel controls and shutting down public events.
After the city of Venice canceled its cherished Carnival and governments warned citizens against travel to Italy, the country is facing a possible recession. Hotel occupancy rates in the lagoon city are down to 1%-2%.
"The surface of the Grand Canal is like glass because the boats that transport merchandise are not there. On the vaporetti (water buses), there are only five or six people,’’ Stefania Stea, vice president of the Venice hoteliers association, said.
Italy on Saturday saw its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases since the outbreak began in the north of the country on Feb. 21.
In its daily update, Italy's civil protection agency said the number of people with the coronavirus rose by 1,247 in the last 24 hours, taking the total to 5,883. Another 36 people also died as a result of the virus, taking the total to 233.
There was chaos and confusion in the northern Italian city of Padua in the Veneto region as word spread late Saturday evening that the government was planning to announce the quarantine.
Packed bars and restaurants quickly emptied out as many people rushed to the train station in Padua. Travelers with suitcases, wearing face masks, gloves and carrying bottles of sanitizing gel shoved their way on to trains.
Before Conte signed the quarantine decree, Stefano Bonaccini, president of the Emilia Romagna region, said parts of the decree were confusing, and he asked the premier for more time to come up with solutions that were more “coherent.”
Around the world, passenger-packed cruise ships confronted their own virus problems.
Officials in California were deciding Saturday where to dock the Grand Princess cruise ship, after 21 tested positive for the virus. There is evidence the ship now idling off San Francisco was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of almost 20 cases during an earlier voyage.
“Those that will need to be quarantined will be quarantined," U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said. "Those who will require medical help will receive it.” President Donald Trump said he would have preferred not to let the passengers disembark onto American soil, but would defer to medical experts.
In Egypt, a cruise ship on the Nile with more than 150 aboard was under quarantine in the southern city of Luxor after 12 positive tests.
Also Saturday, the port of Penang in Malaysia turned away the cruise ship Costa Fortuna because 64 of the 2,000 aboard are from Italy. The ship had already been rejected by Thailand, and is now heading to Singapore.
And in Malta, which reported its first case of the virus Saturday, the MSC Opera ship agreed not to enter the Mediterranean country’s port amid local worries — even though there are no infections suspected on board. The ship continued to Messina, Sicily, where passengers were allowed to disembark after officials reviewed medical records.
Transmission of the virus is now going in every direction.
While the global death toll has risen past 3,400, more people have now recovered from the virus than are sickened by it. As of Saturday, nearly 90,000 cases have been reported in Asia; more than 8,000 in Europe; 6,000 in the Mideast; about 450 in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and fewer than 50 cases reported so far in Africa.
While many scientists say the world is clearly in the grips of a pandemic — a serious global outbreak – the World Health Organization isn’t calling it that yet, saying the word might spook the world further.
The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which cause up to 5 million severe cases around the world and up to 650,000 deaths annually, according to the WHO.
In Iran, fears over the virus and the government's waning credibility has become a major challenge to leaders already reeling from American sanctions. More than 1,000 infections were confirmed overnight, bringing the country's total to 5,823 cases, including 145 deaths.
The government declared a “sacred jihad” against the virus: Wearing gas masks and waterproof fatigues, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard sprayed down streets and hospitals with disinfectants.
South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China, reported 93 new cases on Sunday morning, taking the total to 7,134, with 50 deaths overall.
China on Sunday morning reported 44 new cases over the past 24 hours, the lowest level since it began publishing nationwide figures on Jan 20, and 27 new fatalities. But while infections were increasing more slowly, the country was struck anew by tragedy: A hotel used for medical observation of people who had contact with coronavirus patients collapsed on Saturday, trapping 70 people inside, according to local news reports.
Countries outside Asia stepped up efforts to control the outbreak.
Saudi Arabia banned spectators at any sports competitions starting Saturday. The NBA and British sports teams are considering doing the same.
“I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd,” Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said. “That’s who I play for.”
Spain deployed police to enforce a quarantine. Austria confiscated 21,000 disposable masks that a Turkish company smuggled aboard a tour bus, seeking to profit from soaring demand. Turkish police, meanwhile, threatened legal action against social media accounts accused of spreading false virus information.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging older adults and people with severe medical conditions to "stay home as much as possible" and avoid crowds.
Most people who get the virus have mild cases, though the elderly face greater risks. Among the many new cases in Europe on Saturday was a doctor in Slovenia who was in contact with more than 100 people in a nursing home after a ski trip to neighboring Italy.
Global markets were enjoying a weekend respite from market panic, but the world economy faced mounting damage. China, the world’s biggest trader, reported Saturday its exports tumbled 17.2% from a year earlier in January and February.
A total of 78 million migrant workers have since returned to work in China, and manufacturers are reopening. But they aren't expected to return to normal production until at least April, and most people in Wuhan still are barred from leaving their homes.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Milan; Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran; Joe Wilson in Barcelona; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade; Karel Janicek in Prague; David Rising in Berlin; and researcher Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.