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A biker rides past the Duomo di Milano on Piazza del Duomo in central Milan on March 8, 2020, after millions of people were placed under forced quarantine in northern Italy as the government approved drastic measures in an attempt to halt the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus.MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Milan became the European version of Wuhan over the weekend, when the bustling commercial hub and 14 regions in northern Italy went into lockdown, putting 16 million people – equivalent to almost half the population of Canada – into isolation.

The extreme measures came two days after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte closed all the schools, including universities, and one day after Italy’s coronavirus infection and fatality count surged. By Sunday, Italy had reported 7,375 COVID-19 cases – up by 1,492 in 24 hours – and 366 fatalities so far. Italy now has more confirmed cases than South Korea and second to China where the outbreak started.

Mr. Conte signed the sweeping lockdown decree early on Sunday morning, banning the movement of people in and out of Lombardy, Italy’s wealthiest and most populous region, whose main city is Milan. Lombardy emerged as the European epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak two weeks ago, when 10 towns just south of Milan and one town in the adjacent Veneto region were placed into quarantine, affecting 50,000 people.

“We are facing a national emergency,” Mr. Conte said. “We want to contain the spread of the contagion and avoid overloading the hospitals.”

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The decree also applies to parts of Emilia-Romagna (whose biggest city is Bologna), Piedmont (Turin), Veneto (Venice) and the Marches (Ancona). The draconian restrictions will result in the closing of ski resorts, the cancellation of funerals and weddings and allow only small groups allowed into stores, where customers are required to stay one metre apart from each other. It bans any public gatherings that “do not allow a safety distance of at least one metre to be respected.”

The restrictions will be reinforced by the police and army and are to remain in place until April 3.

Pope Francis has cancelled public appearances. On Sunday, he used a video link to present his angelus prayers, which he normally leads in person from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square. The angelus was cancelled to discourage the faithful and tourists from visiting the square.

Professional soccer games are to be held in empty stadiums. Museums and gyms are also to be closed, and employees are being told to “smartwork” – work from home, if possible. But the train stations and airports in Lombardy remained open on Sunday, presumably to allow Italians to return to their homes, although there was some confusion as to whether they would remain open and be subject to passenger controls at checkpoints, or soon be closed.

The functioning train stations in the north enraged some southern Italian governors, who fear passengers would transmit the disease to the local population. Michele Emiliano, governor of Puglia, the region in the “heel” of Italy, signed an order on Sunday that obliges residents of Puglia who arrive from Lombardy to go into quarantine. “Do not bring the Lombard, Venetian and Emilian epidemic to your Puglia,” he said on Facebook. “You are carrying the virus into the lungs of your brothers and sisters, your grandparents, uncles, cousins and parents.”

Hospitals in northern Italy were already overloaded, and the fear was that health centres elsewhere in Italy would reach breaking point as the virus spreads south. On Sunday, Rome’s Spallanzani infectious diseases hospital said it had 54 “positive” coronavirus cases, nine of whom were on ventilators – an indication that their condition is serious or critical.

“We are now being forced to set up intensive-care treatment in corridors, in operating theatres, in recovery rooms” Antonio Pesenti, chief of Lombardy’s crisis-response unit, told Il Corriere della Sera newspaper. “We have emptied entire hospital wards to make space for people in critical condition. One of the best health systems in the world, in Lombardy, is a step away from collapse.”

In Milan, Italy’s normally bustling commercial capital, streets and parks were about two-thirds empty. But Francesca Lorenzi, a 47-year-old Milanese lawyer, said Italians were being “undisciplined” about the one-metre rule, with some respecting the distance, others not. She acknowledged that she was afraid of exposure to the virus and was staying indoors.

A radiologist in Milan said the situation at her hospital was bad. She is urging her friends to avoid all crowds and only go outdoors at sunrise when there are few people around. The Globe and Mail is keeping her name confidential because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

Several high-profile COVID-19 cases have rattled Italians. The governors of Piedmont and Lazio, the region that is home to Rome, have tested positive for the virus, as did Italy’s army chief of staff. The Lazio governor, Nicola Zingaretti, who is also secretary of the governing Democratic Party, said he is quarantining himself at home.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, praised Italy’s severe isolation measures. “The government and the people of Italy are taking bold, courageous steps aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus & protecting their country,” he said in a Sunday tweet. “They are making genuine sacrifices.”

By Sunday, there were almost 108,000 reported coronavirus cases around the world, with 3,662 deaths, most of them in China. But the isolation efforts in that country have slowed down the transmission of the virus substantially. On Sunday, China reported only 52 new cases.

The almost total shutdown of Italy’s industrial north is expected to destroy any prospects of economic growth in the country this year. Italy was already on the verge of recession before the coronavirus outbreak hit last month. Gross domestic product fell 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2019.

Thousands of small businesses are expected to go bankrupt, especially in the tourism and hospitality industries. On Sunday, Alitalia, which is in administration – a process similar to filing for bankruptcy – announced that it was stopping flights from Milan’s Malpensa airport. It is also operating a reduced number of national flights from Milan’s Linate airport.