ROME – Italy on Friday set a new standard for major Western democracies seeking to weather the pandemic by enacting a sweeping law requiring the country’s workforce – public and private – to have government-issued health permits, essentially forcing Italians to choose between obtaining one. and earn a living.
With this move, Italy, the first democracy to quarantine cities and implement national lockdowns, first crossed a new threshold, making it clear that it is ready to use the full influence of the state to try to curb the epidemic and get the economy moving.
Italy’s measures, which require proof of vaccination, a negative rapid scan test or a recent recovery from Covid-19 to go to the workplace, are now among the toughest in Western democracies, which have struggled to balance public health needs with civic freedom concerns.
For many Western governments, this has resulted in refraining from national mandates while looking for other ways to encourage, persuade, and even force people to vaccinate.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has tried to make life uncomfortable for unvaccinated people, requiring health clearance to enter restaurants and long-distance train travel, for example, but has imposed vaccinations on only some essential workers.
President Biden has appealed to private companies to mandate coronavirus vaccinations for employees, telling them to take the lead as an effort announced in September to require 80 million American workers to get the vaccine, is subject to a lengthy rule-making process.
Under the new Italian rules, those without a Green Pass, as the health certificate is called, must take unpaid leave. Employers are responsible for verifying certifications, which mostly appear on the mobile app, although hard copies are also accepted. Workers face fines of up to 1,500 euros – or about $1,750 – for non-compliance.
Not everyone agreed with the requirements. Last weekend, right-wing extremists hijacked a demonstration of 10,000 opponents of the Green Corridor — a mix of vaccine skeptics, conspiracy theorists, anti-establishment types, and workers angry at having to pay for repeated smears — and turned violent, leading Italy to do it once again. He reckons with his fascist legacy.
But on Friday, the launch went rather smoothly, with only sporadic protests, as the majority of citizens accepted the new card as a fact of Italian life and an enduring sacrifice, such as wearing masks indoors, to help the country emerge from the pandemic and return to normal life.
The Green Corridor has not faced any serious legal challenge so far. Government officials said the measure was already working, and more than 500,000 people who were previously hesitant – much higher than expected – had received the vaccination since the government announced its plan last month.
Under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the country has reversed from a faltering start to the vaccination that began under the previous government led by a prime minister affiliated with the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that came to power in part in 2018. By encouraging skepticism about vaccines.
Today, Italy has vaccinated more than 80 percent of its population over the age of 12, having earlier set strict requirements for health workers and teachers and significantly increased vaccination rates in those groups.
But to reach the most reluctant unvaccinated workers – an estimated 3.8 million people – the government has now taken one of the most hard-line lines in the Western world.
Strongholds remain. At the Circus Maximus in Rome, the ancient track is often used for chariot racing at large gatherings with tens of thousands of people, and a few thousand demonstrators waved signs reading “Freedom” and “Green Pass is Just the Beginning” at one end of the square.
Stefano Fucelli, 58, equated paying for coronavirus tests in order to go to work with state extortion, and said he resisted getting the vaccine because he “didn’t want to be a lab mouse”.
In Florence, reporters and law enforcement officers outnumbered protesters, some of whom beat bongo drums and came up with creative solutions to get around the green lane.
David de Momiu, a 41-year-old fur owner from nearby Prato, said that instead of being vaccinated, he would have a swab test every two days to go to work.
“I won’t work on Fridays, to take fewer tests,” he said, adding, “Less profit – is that fair?” He didn’t think it was. “I find it infuriating that we should go through this. It is a matter of principle.”
Government officials also had to follow the new rules for entering Italian government buildings. An unvaccinated council member in the Lazio region that includes Rome set up camp in his office before the law went into effect at midnight, avoiding having to take a coronavirus test before entering the building on Friday.
“October 15, 2021: The history books will remember this day as a day of infamy,” former Five Star member David Barillary said in a video he posted from his office in the middle of the night.
But the problem has already been settled for the Italian government and Mr. Draghi, who has led Italy out of its worst days of the pandemic and toward recovery, with a reputation for getting things done.
As head of the European Central Bank, he famously helped save the euro, declaring he would do “whatever it takes” for the EU currency to survive. Since becoming prime minister in February after a political crisis, he has enjoyed widespread support across the political spectrum.
Coronavirus pandemic: essential things to know
The once-great populists who used to galvanize vaccine skeptics now support his government. Business groups have also supported the Green Corridor as a way to boost the economy. But the country’s unions largely opposed it, objecting to a plan to force workers to pay for swabs.
In the northeastern port city of Trieste, one of Italy’s largest shipping and transport hubs, hundreds of port workers, a high percentage of whom were vulnerable, gathered to block trucks. Their main goal was to get the government to pay for the swabs.
“We won’t give up until the government abolishes it,” said Sandy Falk, a union leader.
The government did not budge. She argues that the cost would be prohibitive and would erode the vaccination effort and its goal of a 90 percent vaccination rate. The government has said that it considers vaccines the only way out of the epidemic. She said that if the current Green Corridor formula fails to promote more vaccines, she would consider making it more stringent.
“Making the swab free, means in a big way that those who got the vaccine have made a mistake,” Andrea Orlando, Italy’s labor minister, said on Tuesday.
While the swabs, which cost about $20 each, can be a financial burden for workers, the growing volume of tests can also be a logistical burden for the health system, which is already experiencing a backlog.
“It was a mad house,” pharmacist Anna Laura Pellegrini said Friday. St Elena’s pharmacy in Rome was open for less than an hour, but the owners had already taken 15 coronavirus swabs, with many more reservations in the coming hours and days.
Not everyone bothered to get the swab. The country’s National Security Institute reports that 23 percent of people called in sick today than last Friday.
Unvaccinated esthetician Katja Steinhaus, 28, woke up at 7 a.m. Friday to be the first to get a swab test to go to work, which began at 11. A swab test every two days convinced her to get vaccinated. I planned to book a shot that day.
“Work is the most important thing in life,” she said, adding that without a vaccine, “I can’t do anything anymore.”
Reporting was contributed by Emma Popola and Elisabetta Povoledo in Rome and Gaia Biangiani in Florence.