by Cynthya Porter

Among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Italy was forced to resort to some of the world’s most extreme measures as it struggled to quash the virus’ spread. As the infection rate spiraled out of control, the government shuttered every non-essential business and even created a police state in which residents were quarantined to within a few streets of their home.

For tradeshow organizers, exhibitors and buyers, that, of course, completely upended spring trade fairs, though many organizers optimistically postponed events to fall dates rather than canceling them outright. But according to a recent plan released by government officials, the fall will likely still find Italy completely off limits for foreign visitors.

Government officials say it appears Italy has finally gained control over the spread of COVID-19 and leaders are gingerly restoring bits of normalcy for Italian citizens, one small freedom at a time. Called Phase Two, the plan unveiled by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte allows residents to go outside for exercise without being stopped by police, visit family so long as they reside nearby, get takeout food from restaurants and hold funerals— all of which had been limited during the government lockdown. If these small steps don’t provoke a new flare-up of coronavirus cases, Conte says shops and cultural sites will open in late May and bars and restaurants, along with other service providers like beauty salons, will be allowed to open June 1.

However, things like allowing large gatherings and permitting entry of foreign visitors are part of Phase Three, Conte says, and the timeline for that step to be taken is a sobering one. “Before Phase Three, we need to wait for a vaccination and for new contagions to reach zero,” says Conte.

Prior to that proclamation by Conte, there was wide speculation that Italy would restrict international visitors until March of 2021, though whether the term “international” applied to residents of the European Union was a matter of debate.

Though there are more than 115 vaccine candidates being developed by labs around the world, scientists have no timeline for the distribution of a vaccine to the general population. Some speculate that it could be two or three years before one is broadly available.

If Conte hinges Phase Three—particularly allowing gatherings and international visitors—on a vaccine, there are an estimated 1,500 exhibitions, meetings and trade fairs a year in Italy that hang in the balance. Many are small regional events where the organizers, exhibitors and attendees are Italian residents. Though it’s not clear yet what types of gatherings will eventually be permitted before Phase Three, it’s possible some of those events could be structured to comply with restrictions while larger gatherings are still banned.

However, Italy has long been home to some of Europe’s most significant trade fairs which draw thousands of exhibitors and buyers from around the globe, and for those events, uncertainty abounds. For example, at Af L’Artigiano in Fiera—a massive public arts and crafts fair in Milan—one third of the event’s 3,000 exhibitors are international firms there to sell to more than 1 million visitors. At beauty show Cosmoprof/Cosmopack in Bologna, more than 2,000 of the 2,850 exhibitors are international companies and 116,000 of the event’s 263,000 visitors are international as well. For these and many other events, if they won’t be allowed to include foreigners or if it’s possible they can’t resume at all until a vaccine is available, it will leave organizers, companies and local economies in a difficult position.

It’s possible that a vaccine will become available sooner or Conte could walk back his position on waiting to allow international visitors or large events until one exists. Or perhaps he will classify travel and congregating for business functions differently than for tourism or entertainment and, as such, permit some business-to-business trade fairs to resume with foreigners included. It’s hard to say what will happen in the future, but Conte is certain about a couple of things right now. “For now, we need to live with the virus,” he told the Italian people in a televised announcement. “If we don’t respect the rules, the curve will rise again, deaths will increase and there will be irreversible damage to our economy. If you love Italy, keep your distance from others.”

Cynthya Porter is a 70-time award- winning journalist recognized by national and international associations for her journalistic expertise in tradeshow topics, travel writing, photography and news.

This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Exhibit City News, p. 29. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_may-june_2020

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