Shireen Gorgin Botura, 30, and Matt Botura, 29, American students living in Italy for two years and working as English teachers, tell The Post’s Sara Dorn about the dramatic changes to daily life in Milan — and how some Italians refuse to change their social habits despite the warnings — amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Italians are no strangers to drama, but the coronavirus epidemic here — which has killed more than 230, infected nearly 6,000 and brought our dynamic city to a standstill — has shaken even the hardiest Italians to their cores.
Every aspect of daily life here in Milan has shifted since the virus hit two weeks ago.
On Friday, outside Milan’s main cathedral, the Duomo, there were more pigeons than people on the plaza. Chinatown was eerily silent. We haven’t seen a double-kiss greeting in days. When we ordered espresso at our local coffee shop Friday morning, we were told we could not drink it at the bar, as is customary, and to sit at a table, away from the workers.
We estimate about 50 percent of shops and restaurants across the city were closed as of Friday.
Collectively, the reaction has been dramatic. But for some Italians, the epidemic is a reality they refuse to accept.
We are originally from Ohio, and moved here two years ago — in part, because we love the lifestyle that centers on social gatherings, family, food and friends.
But we’re worried some are putting their customs above safety. The Milanese are highly social people. Some would rather die than skip their morning espressos and after-work aperitivos.
A student of Matt’s told him she wants to contract the virus to build resilience in preparation for the next wave of the epidemic. Italians pride themselves on their grit.
We’ve seen many elderly people, who are at a higher risk of dying from the disease, continuing about their daily lives as normal.
Shireen had an odd experience Thursday morning — when a man walked up to her and appeared to deliberately cough in her face, then made a U-turn and walked the other way.
Another student told Matt the bars were bustling on Thursday night.
A hashtag, #milanononsiferma, which translates to “Milan Won’t Stop,” has gone viral in the past several days.
“WE ARE OPEN!!! Fear is the worst of evils. We want to reassure all travelers that we are open and super active. With due precautions, travel and discovery remain the most beautiful experiences that human beings can experience! We too shout loudly #milanononsiferma,” the Libeccio Bed and Breakfast Tweeted, along with a flexed bicep emoji.
It’s a shift from the panic that set in on Feb. 21, when news of 16 infections in the Lombardy region broke.
People rushed to the grocery stores, kept to themselves and stared skeptically at anyone who dared to sneeze or cough on public transportation.
When a man coughed on our tram car, crowds literally ran. We ran too.
Our local market was nearly cleared of pasta (gasp!) when we visited on Feb. 23.
By then, confirmed cases had quadrupled. We felt stressed, uninformed and afraid.
We both teach English and business skills, and are in school. Shireen’s work has been closed for two weeks and next week, too, which obviously hurts us financially.
Matt’s school, the University of Milan, is cancelled until the 15th, and there are talks it could be shut down until April 3rd.
We tried to stay inside as much as we could the past two weeks. Shireen ventured out for the first time on Feb. 29 after six days in our apartment. Matt took a few trips to work and the post office. Shops must close at 6 p.m. under a business curfew, but restaurants and bars are the exception to the rule.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this experience is all that’s unknown.
We still have no idea how many people are infected here in Milan; the government is only releasing regional numbers and counts for some of the smaller towns outside the city.
Not only are we fearful for ourselves, but we have deep roots in two of the additional Top 4 infected countries.
We lived in Xian, China, from 2013-2015, and have friends there who were stuck inside for four weeks. The Chinese people are used to being controlled, and wouldn’t dare disobey government orders. If the government demands a quarantine, they won’t leave their homes.
In Italy, the government has a laissez-faire approach to daily life.
Shireen has elderly family members in Iran, where her dad emigrated from in the 1970s. It’s the third most-affected country with 4,747 cases and 124 deaths.
We hope to see her aunts and uncles again soon.
If anything, this experience has taught us that even the simplest pleasures in life — fresh air, human interaction and even going to work — are a gift.