When Jacqueline Curtis arrived in Italy in January, the streets of Bologna were busy. Customers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in cafes and markets. Thousands of people moved through the streets of the country’s seventh largest city.

Then coronavirus swept the country, sickening tens of thousands and killing nearly 2,000.

The portico-covered sidewalks in Bologna’s city center are now nearly empty. Stores are shuttered, university students have gone home and police stop people in the streets to ask where they’re going. Only a single customer can enter a pharmacy at a time and no more than a half-dozen can be in food markets.

Jacqueline Curtis, who is from North Haven, waits at least 3 feet from another customer in line at a market in Bologna, Italy.

“It feels like you’re on a bizarre scary movie set,” Curtis said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Curtis, 35, is from North Haven and had been living in Portland. She intended to stay with her partner in Italy until early April, but her flight has been canceled and she’s now unsure of when she’ll return to Maine. As an immune-suppressed Type 1 diabetic, she thinks it may be safer to stay where she is for now to avoid traveling during a pandemic.

She and her partner are living in a small apartment in Bologna, the capital and largest city in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, on the southern end of the coronavirus hot zone. There have been nearly 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, and more than 1,800 deaths in Italy, the World Health Organization reported Monday.


All of Italy is in lockdown. People are not allowed to move around without a permit. Schools, theaters, cinemas, bars and nightclubs have been closed. Religious ceremonies and sporting events are suspended or postponed.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned that the outbreak in the United States “could get as bad as Italy” if the public doesn’t take steps to stop the spread of the virus through social distancing measures such as avoiding groups of people and staying home.

“I mean, if you just leave the virus to its own devices, it will go way up like we’ve seen in Italy. That’s not going to happen if we do what we’re attempting to do and are doing,” Fauci said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

Curtis spends most of her time working on art projects, reading and cooking, while her partner, a research fellow at the university, works at home. Curtis has deep-cleaned the apartment multiple times and goes out to exercise in the small courtyard behind the building.

On San Vitale in Bologna, Italy, only markets, tabacchi shops and pharmacies are open.

On the rare occasions Curtis leaves the house to go to the market, she covers her mouth and nose with a mask. She is mindful to follow instructions to stay at least 3 feet from other people. The measures seem “pretty extreme,” but are also necessary to stop the rapid spread of the virus, she said.

“It feels pretty wild to be walking to the market and see 95 percent of people with masks and gloves on,” she said. “But in a way it seems really calming because the people here are taking it seriously.”


North Haven, Curtis’ hometown, this week took the extraordinary step of banning visitors and seasonal residents from the Penobscot Bay island to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Curtis welcomed that news and is encouraged to see so many Mainers take social distancing seriously, something she feels Italians were slow to do.

“I tell my family ‘Don’t take it lightly.’ It might seem severe to do this social distancing and quarantine, but I think if people do it for 14 days, we’re likely to see this slow down,” she said. “If I have to be really honest, I think Italy is a good example of why countries should think about locking themselves down quickly.”

Curtis said one sharp contrast she’s noticed between Bologna and how people are reacting to coronavirus in the United States is the lack of mass shopping. She’s seen reports of shortages of supplies and food at U.S. stores, but said she hasn’t seen that same type of “panic buying” in Italy.

The sidewalks are empty on Strada Maggiore in the historic center of Bologna, Italy. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Curtis

Curtis said the strict lockdown measures in Italy will be reviewed next week. Even if they are lifted, she’s not sure when she’ll return to the United States because of her concerns about traveling as an immune-suppressed Type 1 diabetic.

She finds comfort, she said, in moments like seeing and hearing neighbors fly flags and play music from windows to connect with their neighbors.

“It cuts down on the eeriness a bit to hear this beautiful, old Italian music playing out the window,” she said. “It gives you a moment to take a small breath even in your mask and feel like it’s going to be OK.”

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