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How One Expat Couple Are Coping With Covid-19 Business Closures In Italy
In this episode, the couple share what the past few weeks have been like as the impact of COVID-19 set in, what support Italy is providing to business owners like themselves, and how they’re hoping to survive this very tough time.
Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.
The Coronavirus pandemic is forcing cities across the world into lockdown, and in Italy, American business owners Linda and Steve have had to close their Rome hostel, The Beehive, for the first time in 21 years.
In this episode, the couple share what the past few weeks have been like as the impact of COVID-19 set in, what support Italy is providing to business owners like themselves, and how they’re hoping to survive this very tough time.
I just want to put a date marker on this conversation, because the COVID-19 situation is changing so quickly at the moment. It's Thursday 19th of March.
Linda and Steve, it's been an incredibly emotional week for you. I know you've been in lockdown in Italy for more than a week now, at least.
Linda: Yeah, I think it started on 9th March.
Steve: It kind of went through a couple of quick stages, where we had an initial one that … Well, first they separated the North from the South with a kind of red zone, and then they made it all one restricted area, but bars and restaurants were open so long as they closed at 6:00 PM. And then about a day or two later, they just shut everything down. So, I think from the very beginning, it was the ninth or maybe even before that.
Carlie: And so, you were caught up in the second stage of the shutdown, when it hit Rome and surrounding areas?
Linda: Yeah. I mean, yes. I actually was going to the hospital in Rome for a surgery that I'd had scheduled, and so I was, for the first couple of days of the quarantine, in hospital. After that, we came to Orvieto, because we actually live in Orvieto. We moved here from Rome nine years ago.
Carlie: Being in hospital at the time, you must have had a bit of a front row seat to the pressure that hospitals have been under in the last few weeks.
Linda: Yeah, the nurses were very stressed. You could obviously see that. And they were telling us not to walk around the hallways. Visitors were curtailed; the visitors couldn't come.
Steve: The day that the surgery was, she got there in the morning, and then I was in the waiting room pretty much all day while she was in surgery. And during the time that I was there, there were about 10 to 20 different people, like visitors, coming to see patients. And almost all of them were wearing masks.
We were all in the waiting room, and when it came to visiting time, the nurse came out, and she was very direct and stern about these instructions. And she said, ‘Okay, you're going to go in one at a time. You're going to use the gel on your hands. You're going to line up against the wall, like literally stuck to the wall, until we call you. And then once you're in the room, no touching the patients. No kissing them. No bringing in anything from outside. So, if you’ve brought any food or whatever, you have to throw it out.”
She had a series of things and kept reiterating that this was all because if they got infected, there wasn’t going to be anybody to help the patients. And as she was telling them this, and most of them were old people, they all were congregating closer and closer to listen to her. And by the end, she was like, ‘You guys still don't get it. You need to be away from each other. You need to be separated.’
And it was just like trying to get this very foreign concept in their head, that they can't be standing just a couple of centimetres apart. Italians are pretty renowned for it. Anyway, that was day one. By the second day, they stopped visitors altogether. They just had no visiting time whatsoever.
Carlie: So there was no point trying to train people to do the right thing?
Steve: I don’t know if it was about training them to do the right thing. It was just such a fast, swift move that people were shocked. Going from one day giving people kisses on the cheek and handshakes and so on – that's very common here – to having to stand a couple of feet away from each other.
It just took a few days for people to get that through their head, and now it seems like everybody's complying. I mean, we see people lining up to go to the grocery store and they all keep a pretty wide arc around them. And outside, if there's a couple of people talking on a corner, they've got quite a bit of distance between them.
In Rome too, it’s the same. I mean, everybody's pretty separate. The problem is that stuff can last on surfaces for like nine days. So if you go out and you sit on a park bench and you touch this or that, and then somebody else comes by two days later and sits on it, you can be infecting them. So even if you're socially isolated all alone, just being out and about makes the possibility of contagions.
Carlie: So here in France, the government has issued a permission form, which you have to print or write out and check a box as to one of the valid reasons why you're outside. Is a similar situation happening in Italy?
Steve: Yeah, it's the same. It's the same, and it's supposed to be there for work or for medical reasons or for going to care for somebody who can't get out on their own. But I've gone to work, and I've gone from the hospital and across regions – like coming up to Umbria to go home – and I haven't been stopped in the car anywhere, and I haven't been stopped on the roads anywhere.
I know that they’re stopping a lot of people, and sometimes at random, but I haven't been stopped. So I don't know exactly what the line of questioning is like, but I've printed out a bunch of forms just in case.
Linda: Yeah, he had to come to the hospital too. First he had to take me there, and then he had to pick me up and bring me home. Also, yesterday he had to go down to Rome to close up our hostel, which we had to do. So that was a time when he had to go down to Rome between regions and no one stopped him at all.
Carlie: Yeah, you are among the business owners that are directly feeling the impact of this pandemic. And I noticed on your Facebook – Beehive Hostel Facebook page – that you have had to close the hostel, and it's the first time in 21 years. It must be a very emotional week for you.
Linda: Yes, it is. It's surreal and sad.
Steve: I think it was more difficult though in mid-February, when we were seeing these numbers go from the 10-digits to the hundreds, having people write to us, saying, ‘We're uncomfortable about coming to Rome.’ Even though, at that point, we all still felt in Rome, where there weren't any cases, that it wasn't an area where people had to be concerned about it.
That was a much more stressful situation, because we were feeling like, Where is this going to go? And we started to see a bunch of cancellations, and it was like, How are we going to get through this?
We still have no idea how we're going to get through this. But the difference in the beginning was the fear of the unknown, whereas now it's very well known. We will be closed for at least a month or two, and it's going to take the entire world a long time to recover from this. And that doesn't make the situation any better. But just knowing – knowing where we stand and knowing that everybody's in the same boat – makes it less stressful.
Carlie: Those lead-up weeks must've felt very uncomfortable. And I have heard stories of businesses being like, ‘There is no virus here. It's completely fine to come.’ And you can understand why they would have thought that.
Steve: Yeah, we thought that.
Linda: We thought that. I feel ridiculous now when I look back at some of my posts, where I was just trying to exert a kind of calm for people, to let them know that everything – because at the time it was, at least we thought so … In Lazio in Rome, there were no cases. So we all thought everything was fine, and we were going about our daily business, and obviously being in hospitality, travel and tourism, we were trying to reassure people that it was perfectly fine to be there and to come and visit.
I don't think we put anybody in danger, because still the cases in Lazio are quite low compared to Northern Italy, but still, at the time we didn't realize the severity of it, and the seriousness of it. Obviously, we do now, but everybody was feeling like that. Everybody thought it was business as usual, but it really wasn't.
Steve: And we're a few weeks ahead of … The United States and the UK are still lagging behind in their response, some people thinking that it's not going to affect them, or not really understanding the numbers and how they work and what position they're going to be in.
Or just measuring the wrong thing, like constantly thinking about how this compares to a flu virus, and the mortality rate … All those numbers aren't really relevant. The numbers that are relevant are what Italy has just very narrowly avoided, which is a collapse of your health system. And that's the most important thing, which I think a lot of countries aren't really grasping. Maybe at this point they've waited too long and see it as inevitable. I don't know.
Carlie: We know now that Italy seems to have made the fatal mistake of waiting that bit too long. What are you seeing the government doing to try to gain ground and get out ahead again?
Steve: I actually don't think the government made any mistake at all. I think they made an incredibly difficult, bold move, and it was the first in Europe to make that choice. You know, we had no example of anybody else doing it. This is something that's never happened.
So, I think that took a lot of balls, and I think it was serious leadership. It's when something's difficult that it shows how strong your leadership is. I think it really did an amazing job. I think the numbers and the way people see— Because I've seen reporting of “Look at Italians’ socialized healthcare system,’ and trying to frame it as a failure.
I think the way it's distributed between the North and the South is putting a lot more pressure on the North. And the number of hospital workers and the number of beds, and the number of ventilators is very disproportionate between the North and the South.
But the fact that we went immediately into a wide-scale lockdown … 60 million people, all for the sake of saving everybody possible, is—
Linda: It’s really commendable. I am very proud of Italy for the actions that they've taken.
Steve: In the beginning, what we were talking about, as Americans especially, was how we would see articles … Every one of the articles of the New York Times or the Washington Post would lead with what the Dow Jones was doing and what was happening to the economy. And then when they got into numbers about deaths, that was always secondary.
And we felt, in the beginning, that it was not necessarily aligned with our interests, because for our interests, we saw that this was going to be a huge death blow to our business, but for our interests as people in this world, we felt like that response was very aligned with what we believe in. Which we had a lot of respect for. Which is that we care about the citizens and the health of the citizens first, and the economy? We’ll deal with that later.
And I don't have a whole lot of faith in Italy's ability to make good on those promises, because Italy doesn't do a very good job in general at these things. Even with the best intentions, they might have a hard time carrying it out efficiently. But I still feel good about the fact that we just went right into lockdown and said, “We have to save lives and we have to preserve our system and we have to do the right thing.” I think they did an amazing job.
Carlie: I'm curious, what support has the Italian government announced for business owners like yourselves at this time?
Steve: Okay, so it's coming out in little drips, and nothing is final, and nothing is certain. But so far, they've opened up this fund that already exists for workers who have either … I don't know what the terminology would be in English, so if I'm saying this staggered, that's why.
A lot of the hours that are lost, or businesses that are suspended altogether ... Companies that have over five employees can put them into this special fund, where 80% of their salaries are paid for by the government.
If you have under five employees, then it's done region by region. And there's a special way that you can apply for that as well, but it hasn't come out yet, because the regions now have to respond. By Sunday, they might have all the details.
So pretty much all the legal workers will be covered for about 90 days. Their salaries up to 80% will be covered for about 90 days. And then, if you're not a dependent worker, but you own your own company or you have a shop or something like that, you are entitled to 600 Euro a person, which is not a whole lot.
So that's the first thing on behalf of the workers. All taxes and everything have been suspended at least until May. I think right now it's been scheduled for May, but then it'll go on further. And mortgages and loans have been suspended until about September.
And then there's a bunch of different systems for getting credit, available to businesses, where loans are guaranteed by the government. Now they have a whole lot of extra work to do though, especially in the tourism sector, because there's a lot of people in the tourism sector who were kind of the first to be hit and will be the last to recover. And I think that'll happen later.
And I think, depending on contact … The prime minister has already said that the lockdown, which initially was to 3rd April with the lesser restrictions and then it got restricted higher to the 25th. Now they're saying that it's going to extend passed the 3rd, and it'll most likely be even more restrictive than it is now.
So, we're going to be in this for a while. The amount that Italy has pledged to this problem is shockingly low compared to what other governments are talking about. I mean, the United States is talking in the trillions. Italy has said something like 25 billion. So, they are going to have to step it up a hell of a lot.
It's also complicated here, because so many people don't have work contracts, so how are they going to be helped? And then there's a lot of … It's a messy situation. I don't know how they're going to try and say that everybody …
I also think that, because the unions and everything are really strong here, their first approach is, How are we going to save workers? And it's kind of a backwards way of thinking, because if you don't save the companies – even if you send a lifeline to workers for three months or so on the government's dime – if the businesses aren't saved, then it's just like putting a bandaid on it, and they're all going to lose their jobs eventually anyway. And it will have just cost the government a lot more.
The minister of the economy is no dummy. But then again, it always seems like Italian government has never had any experience actually running small businesses. Apart from maybe one person, it doesn't seem like anybody really gets what our struggles are on the ground.
But it sounds like they want to do the right thing. Whether they actually do it or not is another story. And then whether their interpretation of the right thing is efficient enough and functional enough to work is a whole other [thing].
To our advantage, even in the best of functioning times, if you don't pay your bills, nothing really happens for a while. So now, with it totally frozen, with nobody working …
Carlie: It’s going to be more lax.
Steve: There’s a lot of breathing room. It's not like you didn't pay your electricity bill on time and the next day you're worrying about it. Even in the best of times, you don't worry about it for a month or so. So we've got some breathing room.
Carlie: Are we seeing that entrepreneurial spirit emerge from Italian business owners like we've seen elsewhere in the world? We're seeing restaurants and cafes and movie theatres and so many other businesses needing to get creative to figure out how to replace their lost incomes. What have you seen and how are you planning to stay afloat while you're forced into closure?
Linda: We have seen some friends, for example, that own restaurants, who are doing deliveries right now. And they have completely changed their restaurant operation to a delivery system, which is a very difficult task. But they’ve managed. They seem to be doing very well with it.
The problem is, we don't how long that's going to last, how long they're going to be able to continue doing that, because the measures get more and more restrictive every day, it seems like. So I don't know how much longer they'll be able to continue that way.
For ourselves, there's not much wiggle room as far as what we can do, because we offer accommodation.
Steve: And nobody can travel.
Linda: Nobody can travel right now.
Steve: There are no flights here, so there's no incoming travel. We had a few people who got stuck, who were waiting for flights out and they needed a place to stay, but they were very few, and by now they're all gone.
There're no students here. There're no other kinds of people needing accommodation. And even the people who were at our place … It was so sad. They were just stuck inside, sitting there by themselves, in this foreign city, in a room with nobody.
Linda: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: Not interacting with anyone.
Linda: Which isn't really what you go to a hostel for, right?
Carlie: Absolutely. I travelled Europe through my twenties, including staying at your hostel, and it's completely opposite to what a hostel vibe is meant to be.
Linda: I actually looked at all the emails and saw that you stayed with us in 2012.
Carlie: Oh, wow. Yes, I did.
Steve: So, I don't think there's any opportunity for us to do anything else. And we’ve started selling gift cards, like for advanced stays, and a lot of people, I think, have bought them more in solidarity, wanting to help us. Probably more like a donation than …
Linda: I know some people really would like to use them come the fall. But yes, we were selling gift cards to people that can be applied towards accommodation, cooking classes … Because we do cooking classes; we have dinners; we have breakfast. I do walks and outings.
So, these gift cards can be applied towards that. We’re not asking for donations. We have had people donate, which is lovely and we really appreciated it, but we wanted to have more of an exchange, so they're giving something, but we're really hoping to be able to give something back to them in the future.
Steve: Our business is based on … It's not like we're producing something that's for sale. We're selling time essentially. So if one month we are closed and we sell bed nights in a further month, we haven't really used this month at all.
We've changed our cashflow a little bit, but we haven't actually utilized the fact that this period we're closed is productive or income earning. So for us, there's nothing that we can do with our place this time right now to make any money at all. And this time right now might be a couple months. It might be two or three months.
Every day, we get more cancellations. Even by the time the restrictions are gone and we're open, we have a couple of other problems to worry about. We have not only Italy, when it gets this crisis behind them, but then we have to worry about the rest of the world.
Because if the United States’ response is slow and in two months from now they're where we are today, or if they're still in the thick of it and not getting over the crisis, then it's not like we can let Americans fly to Italy and re-infect everybody.
Or maybe it's not Americans; maybe it's somebody else. So, until the entire world deals with this in some way, travel is just not going to go back to what it was. And then, even when it does, then we've got to deal with people feeling secure about travel again, feeling safe about travel, and then they have to have the money.
And if this puts the world into a global recession, which I can't really imagine how it wouldn’t, then that's going to mean that even if travel zooms, it won't be a particularly great time. So I think we're in for a long-term difficult time.
Carlie: It's incredibly difficult to know – at this point, with things changing every day – where the end of the tunnel is.
Linda: Yes. It's a big unknown right now. We can't make any predictions. Fellow hostel owners and managers that I know, we’re all in the same boat together. There's a WhatsApp group that we both belong to, which is called, World Hostel Community. And it has people from all over the world.
And so we're hearing on-the-ground people from all over, and about the different steps that are being taken, and what they're going through at the moment. It’s very active right now.
Steve: Lots of people closing all over. And this was even before the world started reacting more like they are now. I mean, when it was just Italy going into lockdown, we were still seeing a lot of other people that were suffering so much that they were having to close, or they had nobody there.
So, it's been hitting the travel industry really hard. And worldwide. I just read that, I think, Marriott hotels have closed some of their properties for the first time in forever. So, it's hitting everybody.
Carlie: I've been seeing messages from gym communities saying, ‘Please keep up your membership fees during this time, because if you cancel, you may not have a gym to come back to.’ Is it the same situation with accommodation providers like yourselves? Do you fully expect that some just won't be there anymore at the end of this?
Steve: Yeah, there's a huge chance of that.
Linda: There are a lot of people in accommodation, especially small businesses, that will not make it. We're just trying to do our best to survive, because we really want to.
Steve: We also have no choice. We have no plan B. There're other people who are even looking at this and going, ‘Okay, it's time to shut my doors and now go do something else.’ We don't really have a something else. That's happening, as well, for a bunch of reasons. So no, we have to make this work somehow.
It's going to require lot of help from the government, but also a lot of cooperation from landlords and other people, and loans that are hopefully reasonable and not too predatory. And then at some point, it's going to require people coming back, and Italy having a great recovery.
One of the things that the hotel association was talking about, that they're hoping will be in one of these packages in the future, is that there needs to be a plan for when this is over, of how to really restart tourism in Italy for Italians.
And one of the things that they suggested was having a discount for Italians who travel in Italy, which I think would be a great thing, because there's so much here for people to see. And the experience for an Italian to travel around to another city here is pretty amazing, because there's so much to see and to do. To give us the incentive to not go overseas would be great. Maybe there'll be a rebirth of travel for Italians.
Linda: Also, in our sector, which is the budget sector, the hostel sector … We're pretty confident that when the green light goes that people can start travelling again, coming to Italy again, hostels – the ones that survive – will probably be the first places to see guests.
Steve: Whereas the high-end properties … People who have a lot of money tend to be much more risk averse, and they don't travel as much. At least, we've seen this with other stuff in the past, that the first few to rebound are the really cheap ones with more youthful clients or guests.
Carlie: Well, your influencers will be back. I hope. I am curious – because I'm very plugged into what's going on – obviously back in my home country of Australia, they've said no international flights, I think until the end of May. I believe that's kind of mirrored across the world right now, where they're kind of going, ‘Okay, everything shut down, until the end of May, at this point.’ So what are you telling people that might've made bookings with you for the second half of the year?
Steve: Nothing. We don't know.
Linda: We don’t know. I mean, we've had some people with non-refundable bookings, people that paid in advance, contacting us now for stays that are taking place in June or July, and wanting to cancel and wanting a refund. And, you know, non-refundable is non-refundable.
We've always made that very clear to people, before we've accepted their payment. I would hope that, if somebody accepts a condition like that, they would get the appropriate travel insurance to cover any losses. But I can't say that 30th June we'll still be in a nationwide quarantine. I can't make that prediction right now.
I also am absolutely in no position right now, not having an income, to make any guarantees to anybody or to make any commitments to anybody. Thankfully, it hasn't been that many people that we've had to correspond with them this way, but unfortunately, it is a period where … We cannot make any guarantees to anyone right now about what the future is going to be like. So, who knows? We'll see.
Carlie: And so, what are your plans for the rest of the confinement period, however long that's going to end up being?
Steve: Well, I'm making dinner tonight, so when we're done, I have to go finish the rest of that. What else?
Linda: Well, we have two children. They're home. We have three children, actually.
Steve: Two of them are at home.
Linda: Our oldest is in the Netherlands – she goes to university there. She was originally going to come back. We did a lot of back and forth with it, but in the end, she decided to stay there, because she's actually been sick and decided she didn't want to travel while she was ill. So yes, she's on campus.
And then we have two other daughters who are home. And so, they have their schooling, which they're having to do here. And in fact, schools may be closed now – they're looking at maybe extending it – until May. Our daughters are already moaning a lot about that, not being able to see their friends or go out or anything. So that's going to be a struggle if schools are indeed closed even longer.
Steve: So, our plan?
Linda: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, we have a couple little projects here and there. I've been working, because we have a blog, and so I'm like, ‘Oh, finally, I have some time to write on the blog.’ So, there's that.
We have another project we're working on, because we're very big supporters of artisans and that whole community, and small businesses and artisanal products. So, we are working with a non-profit organisation right now, interviewing different artisans here in Italy, for their website. So, that's something we're going to be doing this next month. So, yeah, we have little projects here and there that we're doing to keep busy.
Carlie: Well, Linda and Steve, thank you so much for your time. Good luck with your projects over the coming weeks, and I hope for your sake that the world starts returning to normal, and you can get your hostel doors open again sooner rather than later.
Linda: Yes, we'd like to go back to doing what we love to do.
Steve: You'll have to come back.
Carlie: Yes, absolutely. I'm overdue for another visit to The Beehive.
Linda: Thanks, Carlie.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you want to share your own experience, head over to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our forums and Facebook groups. You can also find us on Instagram and Twitter, at ‘Expat Focus.’
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