VENICE — For a change, it was the Venetians who crowded the square.
Days before Italy lifted coronavirus travel restrictions on Wednesday that had prevented the usual crush of international visitors from entering the city, hundreds of locals gathered on chalk asterisks drawn several feet apart. They had come to protest a new dock that would bring boatloads of tourists through one of Venice’s last livable neighborhoods, but also to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show that another, less tourist-addled future was viable.
“This can be a working city, not just a place for people to visit,” said the protest’s organizer, Andrea Zorzi, a 45-year-old law professor who frantically handed out hundreds of signs reading, “Nothing Changes If You Don’t Change Anything.” He argued that the virus, as tragic as it was, had demonstrated that Venice could be a better place. “It can be normal,” he said.
The coronavirus has laid bare the underlying weaknesses of the societies it has ravaged, whether economic or racial inequality, an overdependence on global production chains, or rickety health care systems. In Italy, all those problems have emerged, but the virus has also revealed that a country blessed with a stunning artistic patrimony has developed an addiction to tourism that has priced many residents out of historic centers and crowded out creativity, entrepreneurialism and authentic Italian life.
During the lockdown, Rome’s center became as sleepy as a ruin, while the surrounding neighborhoods remained vibrant. The mayor of Florence said he would tour the world, starting in China, to raise private funds for a city hollowed by the lack of tourists. But it is Venice, a city threatened by inundations of tens of millions of tourists as much as it is by high water, where things changed most drastically.
For months, the alleys, porticoes and campos reverberated with Italian, and even with Venetian dialect. The lack of big boats reduced the waves on the canals, allowing locals to take their small boats and kayaks out on cleaner water. Residents even ventured to St. Mark’s Square, which they usually avoid.
Venice, which gave the world the word quarantine during a prior pandemic, has undergone many transformations in its roughly 1,500-year history. It started as a hide-out for refugees, became a powerful republic, mercantile force and artistic hub.
Now, it’s a destination that largely lives off its history and a tourism cash cow worth 3 billion euros, or about $3.3 billion. But with the money comes hordes of day trippers, giant cruise ships, growing colonies of Airbnb apartments, souvenir shops, tourist-trap restaurants and high rents that have increasingly pushed out Venetians.
That lucrative model is likely to return. But longtime proponents of a less touristy city are hoping to take advantage of the global standstill.
“This is a tragedy that has touched us all, but Covid could be an opportunity,” said Marco Baravalle, a leader of an anti-cruise-ship movement who called the absence of big boats “magnificent.”
He said he feared that the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, backed by powerful boating and tourism interests, would turn things back as soon as possible. “It’s going to be difficult,” Mr. Baravalle said. “But it’s our best chance.”
If tourism critics are in agreement that there needs to be a different vision for Venice, they are less clear on how to bring about a renaissance.
There is talk of a proposed international climate change center, of lower rents drawing local artisans and factory workers back to the islands from the mainland and of a creative community of artists, designers, web producers and architects.
In this floating field of dreams, people will come, just other kinds of people. The tourists would be more like the arts crowd that flocks to the Venice Biennale, and they would carry canvas tote bags and be interested in Venice’s heritage, its museums and galleries. Students would stay and become young professionals, draw start-up investors, and replenish an aging and diminishing population. Good restaurants and natural wine bars would push out the awful ones.
“The type of people you attract to Venice depends on what you offer,” said Luca Berta, a co-founder of VeniceArtFactory, which promotes new art in the city, as he stood in his exhibition space.
Alberto Ferlenga, the rector of the Iuav University of Venice, one of several colleges in the city, said his goal was to make Venice more a university town, with students and professors making the city their campus.
He said he was working on a project with the city, powerful Italian banks and Airbnb that would allow thousands of students — including international ones — to live in Airbnb apartments, which are now empty, instead of commuting from the cheaper mainland.
“Common sense says, ‘Let’s take advantage of it,’” Mr. Ferlenga said of the available housing. Students who stayed and built careers and families in Venice could prove as economically viable as the mass tourism market, he argued. “It would change everything,” he said. “In this moment, there is a temporary window.”
But as advocates of change talk of motivating long-term lending through housing-tax breaks, low-interest loans, and a restricting of infamously generous squatting rights, the window is already closing.
In recent days, the city was opened only to those in the surrounding Veneto region. The place was still jammed.
But the city was offered a sense of what was, and what could be. Only Italian — and Veneto-accented Italian — could be heard over the spritzes and plates of black squid ink spaghetti.
“We thought we’d take advantage of this last chance to see Venice when it is only for us, alone,” said Matteo Rizzi, 40, from nearby Portogruaro, whose children carried cameras as he crossed a bridge into the city from the train station. “It’s like having the museum to ourselves.”
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 2, 2020
Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?
Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
Toto Bergamo Rossi, director of the Venetian Heritage Foundation, who lives in a palace not far from the train station, said the hordes had rudely waked him that morning.
“I was really sad, and at the same time, really angry,” said Mr. Bergamo Rossi, whose 15th-century ancestor is depicted in an equestrian statue high above the square where the residents had protested. “We don’t want to go back to that. I want my city to be a real city.”
“Airbnb is like our Covid,’’ he added. “It’s like a plague, and it turned us into a ghost town.”
His organization has prepared an open letter on behalf of “citizens of the world” that he said he would send this week to leaders of the Italian government.
Co-signed by museum directors and academics, and also by Mick Jagger, Francis Ford Coppola and Wes Anderson, the letter presents “Ten Commandments” for the new Venice, including stricter regulation of ‘‘tourist flow’’ and the Airbnb market, and support for long-term rentals.
Supporters of the status quo are quick to dismiss such proposals as noise from the out-of-touch rich and famous. And local tourism workers said they hoped things would switch back soon.
“It’s been a bad period. But I think it will go back to how it was before in about two or three months,” said Jessica Rossato, 28, from nearby Camponogara as she stood outside the Banco Giro bar by the Rialto Bridge. “And that’s an absolutely good thing.”
But it’s not only Venice’s upper- and professional-class residents who hunger for a more livable city. A couple, who have a baby on the way and who were visiting from the mainland, said the rents, even in the more working-class districts, were too high for their salaries.
“We’d love to raise our child here,” said the pregnant woman, Sara Zorzetto, 30, who works with the handicapped and whose husband is employed at a nearby chemical plant. “But there’s no way.”
That is why the protesters in the square were arguing that something had to change. As they held their signs over their heads and applauded, Mr. Zorzi told them that their “common battle” during the period of lockdown “would not be in vain.”
A fellow demonstrator asked him if they would still march down to the new tourist port as planned. He explained that the police had nixed the idea out of coronavirus concerns.
“They say there are too many of us,” Mr. Zorzi said, shaking his head.