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Tourists wear protective face masks at Venice Carnival - the last two days of which, as well as Sunday night's festivities, have been cancelled because of an outbreak of coronavirus.

MANUEL SILVESTRI/Reuters

The alarmingly fast spread of the coronavirus in Italy, the biggest outbreak beyond Asia, is shutting down the wealthy northern parts of the country, where more than 50,000 people in a dozen towns are in lockdown.

By Sunday evening, the Italian infection count had reached 155, the majority of them in Lombardy, whose main city is Milan, the commercial capital. The infection had killed three elderly Italians – two women and a man – since Friday, two of them in Lombardy, the third in the nearby Veneto region.

Brescia

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JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP cONTRIBUTORS; HIU;

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JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

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Brescia

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Verona

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JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

cONTRIBUTORS; HIU; ansa

They were the first non-tourist deaths in Europe. At last count, 26 Italian patients with the virus were in intensive care.

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The shutdown of northern Italy could push the country, the third largest European Union economy, into recession. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Italy was flirting with zero growth. Lombardy and Veneto are the commercial and industrial engines of Italy; the two regions account for about 30 per cent of gross domestic product.

The cases in China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, rose to more than 78,000 on Sunday, with more than 2,400 fatalities. In Iran, governments have ordered the closing of schools and universities in 14 provinces as a “preventive measure.” Iran has recorded eight deaths, the highest outside of China.

Italian health authorities still do not know how the outbreak started in their country. The carrier who introduced the sometimes lethal virus to Italy – referred to as paziente zero, or patient zero – has yet to be found, triggering fears that he or she is still at large and infecting Italians, and that the people he or she may have infected are unaware they are contagious.

The man originally identified as patient zero, who had visited China in January and dined with a 38-year-old Unilever employee in the small city of Lodi, near Milan, has since tested negative for the virus.

Health authorities elsewhere in Europe were worried that the sudden explosion of Italian coronavirus cases will spread across borders. On Sunday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran said new coronavirus cases in France are “very likely” and that he was “particularly watchful” of the epidemic in Italy. France has reported 12 coronavirus cases and the death of one man, who was Chinese.

So far, all of the countries that share borders with Italy – France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia – have kept them fully open.

The shutdown of northern Italy has been rapid since Saturday, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte banned people who live in the infected areas from leaving their towns. Police have been ordered to fine anyone caught entering or leaving the hot-spot towns, and the armed forces may be called in to ensure the regulations are enforced.

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The first town to be shuttered, on Saturday, was Codogno, about 60 kilometres southeast of Milan. Since then, at least 10 other towns have gone into lockdown and their number is bound to rise as health authorities ramp up virus tests. The number of detected infections was rising rapidly on Sunday, with new cases reported virtually every hour. “The contagiousness of this virus is very strong and pretty virulent,” said Giulio Gallera, Lombardy’s health chief.

Schools, including universities, were closed in Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, the region to their immediate south whose capital is Bologna; Piedmont, in the northwest, which shares a border with France; and Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the extreme northeast.

Venice cancelled the final two days of its hugely popular carnival and several professional soccer games were suspended. In Milan, the city’s top tourist attraction, the Duomo cathedral, was closed. Giorgio Armani held an empty fashion show on Sunday, the final day of Milan’s fashion week. The event had no guests and was livestreamed instead. Museums were also closing on Sunday.

Lombardy in particular was turning into a series of ghost towns. On Sunday night, the bars were closed. Earlier in the day, photos showed shoppers loading up on food and supplies in case the shutdown confines them to their homes. Church masses were cancelled in Venice.

As the Italian outburst expanded, the number of cases in South Korea reached more than 600. On Sunday alone, the country reported 256 new cases and President Moon Jae-in put the country on red alert, allowing the government to close schools and prevent public gatherings. Five South Korean deaths have been confirmed. The country was last on red alert in 2009, when the H1N1 virus killed 250 people.

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