At least 133 people affected from virus in Italy

AP International News

A woman wearing a sanitary mask walks past the Duomo gothic cathedral in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. A dozen Italian towns saw daily life disrupted after the deaths of two people infected with the virus from China and a pair of case clusters without direct links to the outbreak abroad. A rapid spike in infections prompted authorities in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

CODOGNO, Italy (AP) — Scrambling to contain rapidly soaring number of new coronavirus infections in northern Italy, authorities on Sunday stepped up measures to ban public gatherings, including stopping Venice’s famed carnival events, which has drawn tens of thousands of revelers to a region that is now in the heart of the outbreak.

“The ordinance is immediately operative and will go into effect at midnight,” announced Veneto regional Gov. Luca Zaia, whose area includes Venice. Carnival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the lagoon city, would have run through Tuesday. Museums, schools, universities and other public venues will be shut as well in Venice and the rest of Veneto. The shutdown is expected to last at least through March 1.

Authorities said three people in Venice have tested positive, all of them in their late 80s and who are hospitalized in critical condition. Nearly all of Italy’s 133 cases are clustered in the north, including in the Veneto region.

The biggest jump in cases of confirmed COVID-19 was reported by authorities in Lombardy, a populous region that includes the country’s financial capital, Milan. That region had at least 89 cases, nearly all of them in small towns in the countryside.

People were urged to stay indoors in Lombardy and Veneto. But while a lock-down of many small towns had been announced on Saturday, police at the entrance to Codogno, one of the hardest-hit towns, weren’t stopping cars entering or leaving.

Italians’ cherished Sunday routines – from soccer to church-going – were being touched by the spread of the contagion, almost entirely based in the north. Sports events in the affected northern areas, including local kids’ sports team practices to three Serie A (top major league) soccer matches, were canceled.

Italy’s first cases — that of a married Chinese couple who were on vacation in Rome — surfaced in early February.

To date, two deaths — of elderly persons in the north — have been reported among the 133 cases. Bishops in several dioceses in northern Italy issued directives that holy water fonts be kept empty, that communion wafers be placed in the hands of the faithful and not directly into their mouths by priests celebrating Mass and that congregants refrain from shaking hands or exchanging kisses during the symbolic Sign of the Peace ritual.

In a coincidence, the Vatican official in charge of the office dealing with propagating the faith hails from Codogno. Archbishop Rino Fisichella, whose siblings live in the town, declined to dramatize the measures. “It’s obvious that we need to use all necessary prudence” to avoid spreading the virus among the faithful, he said.

Elsewhere in Europe, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that authorities were getting ready for a possible outbreak in France of the new virus. In an interview published Sunday in French newspaper Le Parisien, he said he was monitoring very closely the “very serious” situation, including in neighboring Italy.

France reported earlier this month the first death outside Asia of a person infected with the virus, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist.

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