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An Italian Restaurateur In America On Comparing Pandemic Response

The devastating effects of COVID in Italy, and that country's more severe lockdown, should have been a warning and a lesson.

Antonio Ferraro emigrated from Vico Equense in Italy to Washington DC in 2006. He managed various Italian restaurants around DC in the years since, then opened his own spot, Napoli Pasta Bar, in 2018.

In the region of southern Italy where I’m from, they shut down everything in the pandemic. Even to-go at restaurants wasn’t available. You could only go to grocery stores and pharmacies. Restaurants were shut down. And even when they did reopen the restaurants, the restrictions were so high that lots of places decided not to open and waited for phase three or phase four.

In phase two or phase three, it was more restrictive in Italy than here in America. You were required to do different steps, and people came to check that you were doing them. Most of those steps were too expensive or weren’t worth it. In the beginning, the governor of my city over in Italy was allowing restaurants to stay open only from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Before opening each day, they had to have an outside company come in and sanitize everything. For lots of people, it wasn’t worth it.

They were in lockdown for three months. Now everybody is at the beach. Everybody is going out. Until recently, a mask was still mandatory if you were outside, in a crowd. And businesses didn’t get the relief that we got here in terms of timing and money. They might get some tax breaks, but for the first few months nobody got anything. I think that Italy has around 200 new positive cases a day now, but they’re mostly concentrated in the north. Milan was like what Florida is now.

From April to October, Italy is usually full of tourists. I can tell you that 80 percent of that business is from America, Russia, and China. So this year is a flop. They might make some money, but it’s not even going to cover their expenses because all three of these countries are blocked from traveling to Europe right now.

Back in February, when I heard the pandemic was starting in Italy, I knew it was coming here too. Everybody was making fun of Italy at the time, but I said, “Well, you will be surprised what’s going to happen here, because here we are 330 million people, and Italy’s only 60 million.” We are in a bad situation in America. We should have already cleaned up everything. We had time to prepare, but we didn’t. Everybody wasn’t believing it and wasn’t paying attention.

The first thing that happened in March was I had to let go of almost everybody. I only had a couple of people left with me. That’s what we did until we opened the patio on May 28. Right now we can fit 20 people with all the social distancing rules. But most of the time it’s 10 or 12.

You can do indoor dining with 50 percent capacity and people six feet apart. In my restaurant, mostly they only want to dine outside. Inside is very rare, unless it’s very hot. If someone comes earlier, like 4:30 or 5 five o’clock, and for them it’s too hot, they stay mostly inside.

Now we have about 80 percent of our staff back. I really have more people than I should, but I try to give a couple of shifts here and there to everybody. Before, they used to have two or three jobs. Now it seems everybody is slow. We’re unable to keep the same schedule for everybody.

For a while, we tried to have a menu that works for to-go. Most food doesn’t travel that well, no matter how good you’re going to make it. Believe it or not, fresh pasta doesn’t hold up for to-go. We used more dry pasta that keeps the flavor and the texture longer. Now we are almost back to our regular menu. We have fresh pasta, appetizers, fish and meat for the main courses. We try to keep up with the demand.

Unfortunately, I think we’re going to get hit again very soon. Especially in DC. Right now, a lot of people from this city are all in New York, North Carolina, Texas. When they start to come back, we are going to get hit again, no matter how careful we try to be.

I was okay with the first lockdown. I thought everybody was going to close. That is the solution. Stay home. I did. The second week that we were open, one of my employees wasn’t feeling good. I thought he might have COVID, so we we shut down again for 10 days and we waited for the test. My wife, she’s pregnant. I was worried. We just stayed home. I was the only one going outside to do grocery shopping. That’s all we did for two weeks. Even now, my wife doesn’t go grocery shopping. I’m the one who goes back and forth. She’s due next month. I can’t even imagine if something happened to her. We’ve been reading a story about a pregnant woman with COVID, and it’s just too much.

When it comes to shutting down again—right now, for the safety of my family, I wouldn’t think twice. The problem is that landlords don’t care. They want their money. I tried to get some help. But my landlord still wants all rent by the end of the year.

I understand people who say, “I’m not going to close.” At the end of the day, you’re going to end 2020 with debt between rent and missing profits. That’s my choice. But I know what other people might think. You see restaurants closing every day. Restaurants that have leases ending this year—nobody’s going to renew them.

Wearing a mask should be common sense. But the president’s not wearing a mask. The governor of Georgia sued the mayor of Atlanta because she’s trying to enforce wearing masks. I mean, you’re protesting because you want to keep your guns, and you’re protesting because you don’t want to wear a mask? I’m not able to understand this.

If the government is not the one telling us the right thing to do, then we’ve failed. I say “we” because I live here, my son was born here, I have a business here. We failed. I feel bad for all these people. I have friends that are educated people, rich people. They still don’t believe the risks. We cannot even have a conversation because I don’t understand them. What don’t you understand? I have a friend that died of COVID. We used to work together in another restaurant. This person was 40 years old and strong, and he got attacked by COVID, and he died a month after. I don’t understand what else you need to see.