VENICE, ITALY - The Carnival period in Venice usually marks the start of peak season in one of the world's most visited cities, with hordes of tourists piling onto vaporettos to cruise the Grand Canal, strolling through cobblestone streets and lingering in picturesque cafes.
Venice in the time of coronavirus, though, is a shell of itself, with empty piazzas, shuttered basilicas and gondoliers idling their days away. The cholera epidemic that raged quietly through Venice in Thomas Mann's fictional “Death in Venice” has been replaced by a real life fear of COVID-19.
Venice, a UNESCO world heritage site, had already been brought to its knees last year, when near-record high tides flooded a lagoon city which is used to frequent spells of “aqua alta.” Officials had hoped that tourists would return as soon as the waters receded, and they did to some degree. Hotels were at 95% capacity on the last weekend of Carnival celebrations last month.
But then the virus hit, claiming its first Italian fatality in the Veneto region and some of the first positive cases in Venice's historic center. The regional president closed Venice's decadent Carnival celebrations with two days to go, forcing revelers in ball gowns and painted masks to cancel their parties.
Venice has remained quiet ever since. Only residents and intrepid tourists wearing a different type of mask, surgical ones, remain to take advantage of a hauntingly beautiful jewel of a city that otherwise would be jammed. They have the place to themselves: Rialto, the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons of Piazza San Marco.
On Wednesday came another hit, with the May start of Venice's Architecture Biennale now postponed until the end of August. The delayed opening cuts in half the planned six-month attraction that provides a steady stream of visitors to Venice's art and film festival circuit.
The economic losses are piling up in a city already going under, given the more existential, long-term threat that Venice is sinking.
The head of Venice's hotel association, Claudio Scarpa, estimated lost revenue had already reached 1 billion euros, local media reported. Nationwide, the Confturismo-Confcommercio tourist lobby estimated virus-related losses of 7.4 billion euros from March 1-May 31. In Italy, tourism and its related industries amount to 13% of gross domestic product.
The Veneto region surrounding Venice has been hard hit from the virus, counting 345 of Italy's 3,089 positive cases. Veneto schools have been closed since the start of the outbreak, and the tiny town of Vo'Euganeo has been under quarantine for nearly two weeks.
Veneto's regional president Luca Zaia has been battling to preserve Venice's tourism industry in the face of contagion. On Wednesday, he posted a gauzy photo of the lagoon city on his Facebook page with the caption: “Venice `infects' only with its beauty.”