The number of cases of the new coronavirus in Italy, the most afflicted country in Europe, rose on Monday to over 150 with five dead, prompting the government to close off the worst hit areas in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.
Authorities in the two regions, where the outbreak is concentrated, have cancelled sports events and closed schools and universities, while companies from Ray-Ban owner Luxottica to the country's top bank UniCredit have told workers living in the affected areas to stay home.
Lombardy and Veneto represent Italy's industrial heart and jointly account for 30% of gross domestic output.
With an emergency decree passed at a meeting in the headquarters of Italy's civil protection agency, the government adopted special powers to be able to stop people from leaving or entering the affected areas.
Relevant ministers will also be able to halt sports events and school trips outside those areas.
"I've wondered myself why [there are not] so many cases in Italy... and the answer is in the rigorous and meticulous controls our country has adopted from the start," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said at a late night press conference.
Italy's first victim was a 76-year-old woman who was found dead at her home 50 km. (30 miles) south of Milan on Thursday and tested positive for the coronavirus. A 78-year-old man died of the infection in a hospital near Padua on Friday night.The most recent dead patient was in his 80s and had been in hospital for treatment for an unrelated illness when he was struck down by coronavirus, RAI said. The three other people who have died of the illness were also elderly and at least two of them had been suffering serious underlying health problems.
The man's wife and daughter are among 17 people infected by the virus in the Veneto region, where authorities are considering suspending Carnival of Venice events currently taking place.
There are 89 cases in nearby Lombardy, including a man currently at San Raffaele hospital in Milan. The city, where Women's Fashion Week is underway, has a population of 1.4 million.
Fashion designer Giorgio Armani said his fashion show on Saturday would take place in an empty theater without any press or buyers present to safeguard their health.
Milan's prosecutor's office said it would not reopen on Monday and remain closed until further notice.
On Saturday, organizers of MIDO, the world's biggest eyewear trade fair, postponed to the end of May the event which had been due to take place in Milan in a week.
SMALL TOWN AT HEART OF OUTBREAK
The outbreak originated in Codogno, a small town southeast of Milan where Lombardy's first infected patient, a 38-year-old man now in stable condition, was treated.
"All those who have tested positive are people who on February 18-19 had contacts with the emergency room and the hospital of Codogno," Regional Health Councillor Giulio Gallera said, adding that 259 people have been screened in the area in the past two days and 35 have tested positive.
"A contagion rate of 13% is quite strong," he said.
Some 50,000 residents in Codogno and nine nearby towns have been advised to remain indoors. Public gatherings including Sunday church services and football matches have been suspended, and schools and shops have been closed.
Similar measures were adopted in the small Veneto town of Vo' Euganeo where the male victim lived, and in other places.
Conte said further school shutdowns outside the outbreak areas would be up to local authorities.
Italy was the first euro zone country to suspend all direct flights to and from China, after two Chinese tourists from the badly hit city of Wuhan tested positive in Rome in late January.
The Chinese tourists and an Italian national repatriated from Wuhan had been the only three cases in Italy until Friday.