ROME: For Italians, grocery shopping has never been a popular item on the to-do list. But as all cafes, restaurants and nightclubs in Italy have been shut by the government because of the coronavirus pandemic, the simple act of grocery shopping has become an important social activity.
Local supermarkets have become a kind of lifeline for many residents of Rome. Under special laws passed by Italy’s government, for the past 20 days people have been allowed to leave their homes only for necessities.
They can go to work in the few businesses and factories that are still open, and can go to pharmacies and food stores.
Even churches have closed their doors to stop people from congregating there. As such, going to the supermarket has become the only time people can see others.
This is why they tend to do their grocery shopping more than once a day, to avoid loneliness and boredom, and to escape from home. This applies especially to the elderly.
“I feel trapped at home. I need to go out and see people. In this absurd situation I feel like I’m under house arrest even though I’ve done nothing wrong,” Pino, 74, told Arab News as he queued in front of a big supermarket in San Giovanni in southern Rome.
“Since the lockdown began earlier this month, every day I look forward to going shopping. I never went. I always had somebody to do it for me. But this way, at least I manage to leave the flat once a day for some time, have a little stroll. If the police stop and question me, I proudly show them my receipts.”
Pino and a few of his friends arrange their daily trips in advance and meet up at the store. “We stand in line one behind the other, keeping a safe distance from each other of course, at least a meter as we’ve been told by the government. And we chat together while we queue,” he said.
“I’d have never thought in my life that I’d enjoy queues. I always sought ways to cut and avoid them whenever possible, but now it’s different,” he added.
“Of course, we can’t kiss and embrace each other as we always used to do between friends and family before the pandemic, but it’s something.”
Furthermore, elderly people are not fond of video calls. “I’m not good at that. I can’t make them. That technology belongs to another generation,” Mario told Arab News after greeting Pino from afar. “I can barely place a phone call with my Neanderthal-era cellphone.”
Italians have always made fun of the English attitude to queuing for everything, but now they are doing the same.
A security man allows people into the supermarket so no more than 20 are on the premises at the same time and can keep a safe distance. Once inside, they wear plastic gloves provided upon entry. Staff also wear them, along with masks.
“It’s like at the hospital,” said Pino. He and his friends follow each other in a line, a meter apart, eventually meeting at the checkout, then saying goodbye and going back to their homes.
Since food shops and supermarkets are now among the last remaining gathering spots, authorities are anxious to prevent new hotbeds of contagion.
Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi has announced disinfection operations in areas that still have substantial foot traffic, including pharmacies, supermarkets, bus stops and hospitals. Other mayors are doing the same nationwide.
Some shops require customers to disinfect their hands, put on gloves and leave their personal belongings at the entrance before beginning to shop.
Some grocery stores have installed Plexiglas panels at checkouts to prevent close contact between cashiers and customers. Still, when one comes nearly face-to-face with the cashier, it is a brief opportunity to socialize.
“The employees are really nice, and almost more welcoming than usual, especially the younger ones,” Giuseppe told Arab News while picking up his shopping bag.
“A smile becomes really precious in these difficult moments. I appreciate it very much. In normal times it wasn’t this way at all.”
He waves goodbye to his queuing buddies. “See you tomorrow,” he told them. “We’ll need bread and ham, and a little chat.”