Families walk to the Arno River using Via de' Tornabuoni, a street with luxury shopping where stores remain almost empty. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers

‘We’re hurting.’ Italian businesses closing down rapidly in a shaken economy with no insight on when it will open back up

Italian businesses crumble under dire financial pressure in the third wave of COVID-19.

One day shops are open. The next day the gates are closed. One day there’s a fire sale at a clothing store. The next day, the same store items are at full price. That is the schizophrenic fluctuation of everyday life for retailers and consumers in Italy. But one thing for sure, the small business economy is totally ruptured.

Florence, like many cities that heavily relied on tourism, is a skeleton of its former self. Either shops have temporarily closed or permanently closed down. While those in high pedestrian traffic areas are hanging on more than other businesses, everyone is hurting.

“I’ve remained open,” said Marco, who has a shop selling leather. “My neighbors said ‘forget it.’ But I don’t think I can take it anymore.”

There was a common hum in Florence that started around 8 a.m. until several hours after midnight on the weekend. It was the click clack of tourists’ feet traipsing the many museums, galleries and piazzas of the old Renaissance city. Now, occasionally, you’ll get a slight memory of the busy streets that buzzed with life a day or two in the month. But, few are purchasing anything in high-end stories, and even medium-priced markets because like the business owners in Florence, residents are penny-pinching as they navigate the rocky financial waters during the pandemic.

Duane Reed, an American living in Florence purchased a coat at a discount price in one of the more pricier areas in the city. “I passed by this store a year ago and the average coat was €350 easily. Now they’re marked down 70 and 60 percent. The clerk told me that they hadn’t sold anything in over two months, but their rent is like €5,000 euro.”

Sunbathers have a mid-day picnic on an embankment in the Arno River. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers

When the country shut down last year, the Conte Administration introduced the ‘Cure Italy’ Decree for self-employed workers and businesses. In the plans, they received supplemental wages, 60 percent subsidies on rent, opportunities to receive grants, help with energy bills and other aid. A year later with Italy in its third COVID-19 wave, and most of the country categorized as high risk, business owners are not sure if they can make it through.

Along with the national mandates for Florence being in an orange zone, which is medium risk, tensions between business owners and local leadership flared last week. Florence’s Mayor Dario Nardella, placed an extra layer of precaution in his curfew ordinance—you cannot purchase alcohol after 4 p.m.

Reed, who once owned a barbershop in downtown Newark, New Jersey sympathized with the owners. “When you’re a small business owner you take pride in your work and being independent. You put your whole life’s investment into small brick-and-mortars, so it’s hard to be told you can’t open then when you do, you have no one to serve. That’s tough wherever you are.”

“I don’t understand these orders,” said a wine seller in the city’s center. “They should let us stay open and have the police make sure that [residents] observe the curfew. They’re hurting the little guy.”

In Florence, the streets in the evenings are mostly dotted by young Florentines who either walk the corridors, or find places to congregate on what would be tourist-heavy sites, such as the steps of the church built by the once powerful Medici family.

On the weekends, families use the mid-day to take walks and ride bikes. But the shops in the once busy commercial districts are largely empty—save for food markets.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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