Last Sunday, I sat on an ample, white-tiled balcony in Milan with ten relatives for a family lunch.

In normal times, such family gatherings occur whenever we have a reason to celebrate — which is, often. The Italian lockdown between March and May interrupted the tradition, but it resumed quickly and naturally, like animals coming out of hibernation when the winter is over.

This latest Sunday lunch, however, was organized in the face of what looks like COVID-19's next winter. In Italy, rather than a strict around-the-clock lockdown, the government "strongly recommends" that people do not let more than six people into their homes at a time. My relatives decided double that would be OK if we wore masks, stayed outdoors, and six feet apart.

Perhaps we just have to accept that.

It wasn't the only way in which they groaned at Italy's new set of rules, which includes curfews for bars and restaurant-goers and bans on leisure sports and indoor and outdoor parties.

"The situation is not that critical," a cousin said, noting how the death rate was much lower than in March. "It's unfair to pick on professional categories and ruin their livelihoods like that."

Someone else added that a certain number of deaths are unavoidable in the face of this kind of pandemic: "Perhaps we just have to accept that."

Even my mother chimed in on the "anti-maskers" who are getting more and more attention on Italian TV: "I don't like them, but I start to understand where they come from."

My family does not believe in conspiracy theories and nobody thinks COVID-19 is a hoax. We were all as scared as anyone back in March when our home region became the global epicenter of the pandemic. My mother was among those who took to supermarkets in the panic that followed Italy's first death: she stashed masks, hand sanitizer, pasta. She was not only terrified, but also furious at anyone who didn't respect the rules.

Cycling (with a mask) in Milan — Photo: Mikita Yo

Now, with mixed recommendations taking the place of last spring's hard-and-fast rules, it's not easy to know exactly what to do. By the middle of this week, Milan was leading Italy into its second wave, and prominent doctors said the city faced a "critical situation" and infections were "out of control," and needed new rules with no wiggle room.

Between the perfect horror movie plot and an Italian postcard of civic solidarity.

On Thursday, regional authorities finally introduced stricter rules: an 11 p.m. curfew. Every other day it seems, somewhere in Italy is adding new restrictions, though there is still far more freedom than the first wave.

Back in March, this mysterious pandemic's arrival seemed to oscillate between the perfect horror movie plot (public hysteria, politicians in over their heads, an entire city sent into lockdown isolation) and an Italian postcard of civic solidarity (the singing from balconies, flags on the windows, crowdfunders for hospitals).

As we queue up the sequel, there is no singing, no crowdfunders, no flags. Infections are sky-rocketing, and the death toll creeping up, though thankfully still much lower than the spring. Even one week later, looking back at that family gathering, the white balcony and gray skies, individuals largely left with their own fears and doubts about what's right and wrong; an age-old family tradition trying to reaffirm itself. More than a horror movie plot, I have a creeping sense that this is what we we'll be calling life for awhile.


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