IMG_1251 (1).jpg

Left: These face masks were delivered to every Venetian resident on April 27  It’s interesting to see the package is labeled with The Lion of Venice and the star of the PRC.

Amy Worthen, an artist and retired Curator of Prints and Drawings, Des Moines Art Center, has been member of Iowa Sister States since its founding in the mid-1980s. She was the first chair of the Iowa-Veneto Sister State Committee, established in 1997. Since 2004, she has lived half of each year in Venice, where she is a legal resident and owns an apartment. Amy was in Venice from early February through June, 2020. She documented the experience in drawings and photographs and has written this account of living through the Coronavirus lockdown in Venice.

Italy was the first Western nation to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 263,000 cases and 35,000 deaths to date. The virus first emerged in Iowa’s Sister State. the Veneto Region (population of 4,5 million). Since then, the Region has registered 22,190 cases of: 13, 666 have recovered: and 2,107 have died. With its rapid response, the Veneto has become a universally-acknowledged model of how to manage the pandemic.

Left: Daily helicopter surveillance

From my firsthand experience, I saw that Italy’s success in beating Covid-19 was the result of heroic medical interventions; testing and tracing; uniform data collection and reporting: universal healthcare coverage; clear communication from the national and regional governments’ agencies to the citizenry; severe restrictions on movement of people and economic activity backed up by surveillance and by fines; rapid availability and distribution of PPE; social distancing and sanitation measures; the populace’s broad acceptance of the rules; collaboration rather than politicization; and the spirit expressed by the words Ce la faremo (we will get through this together). It was a remarkable time to be living there.

I returned from Des Moines to Venice on February 5. On February 21, the two towns of Codogno in Lombardy and Vò Euganeo in the Veneto (the Colli Euganei, the Euganean Hills, are a hilly hot springs area in the Province of Padua) reported the first cases of Covid-19 detected in Italy. Many ISS members will remember that our RAGBRAI Team Veneto members come from the Province of Padua and they train in the Colli Euganei. Vò, where I had enjoyed so many festive dinners with our Team Veneto friends, was Italy’s first focolaio, or hot spot.

Left: Piazza San Marco filled with Carnevale revelers Feb 21

In nearby Venice, the Regional capital, where I live, the city was still jammed with costumed revelers who had come for Carnevale, originally scheduled to end on Martedi Grasso, February 29. With the virus spreading alarmingly, Venice shut down Carnevale two days early. The city emptied out, leaving fewer than 50,000 permanent residents.

Left: Controlling entrance to the market masks and gloves required

The Veneto Regional government moved swiftly and sealed off the entire town of Vò, restricting entry and exit. Medical teams began testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic residents. On March 7, the Regional Government issued a shelter-in-place and lockdown order for Venice and the Veneto. Two days later all of Italy went into lockdown. By mid-March, the highly contagious virus was spreading rapidly throughout Italy, with some regions’ health systems overwhelmed. The world saw videos of Italian army trucks carrying away corpses. Fuel was insufficient for the number of cremations. 

Left: Empty vaporetto March 3


The restrictions on movement and economic activity that the national government imposed evolved over time but beginning March 9 (until May 4 when Phase 2 began), we co

Left: Signs from the Pandemic

Only essential stores and offices were allowed to remain open (food, pharmacies, banks, and post offices), and those were for very reduced hours. In a city where tourism is so essential to the economy, shops selling tourist goods were deemed non-essential. Schools, libraries, museums, hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants were closed. Meetings, sports events, theaters, gatherings of any kind, were cancelled. Cruise ships were blocked. All flights were halted. Train service was radically curtailed. 

The wearing of masks was obligatory. The government obtained masks for the localities and volunteers delivered surgical four masks, as startup supplies, to the home of each resident until stores could stock them. N-95s could be bought in the pharmacies in limited quantities.


Below: Still water, liquid palazzo 

IMG_1523 (1).jpg

Left: Empty canals of Italy


Constant hand sanitizing meant that hand-sanitizer disappeared from the pharmacies, as did aloe and isopropyl alcohol for those hoping to make their own. Social distancing was adopted, with two meters between people required for standing on lines. Only a few people at a time were allowed into a supermarket, and generally just one customer at a time could go into smaller shops. At Venice’s open-air Rialto food market, there was now just one entrance and one exit. I discovered that if I timed my walk home from the Rialto market right, I could pass through Campo San Polo at noon when the church bells rang and someone opened her windows and played the Italian national anthem full blast. I confess that I found it moving. National and local Facebook groups formed. Italians sang on from their balconies. The Frecce Azzurri (Italy’s the Blue Angels) did fly-overs. Inspirational videos circulated, with Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun’ dorma seemed to be practically everyone’s sound track.

Left: Grocery Delivery


Water traffic came to a virtual standstill, although we still had (all by boat) morning trash collection, frequent police patrols, and emergency services.  Reduced vaporetto service continued on the Grand Canal, and to connect the islands of Lido, Murano, and Burano, and deliveries continued to essential shops. Tourism and its related business ended. For nearly three months no water taxis operated and there were no gondolas. With the radical reduction of water traffic, the canals became stiller and clearer as the sediment settled. The water was like a mirror. Venice became silent, a ghost town.

As air pollution over Northern Italy diminished, the sky grew clear. In Venice, we enjoyed blue skies, clear starry nights, and unbelievably brilliant moonlight. Plants awakened with the onset of Spring. My magnificent wisteria flourished but I could not share spring with anyone.

Left: "Stay Home"

Every evening at 6 PM, people throughout Italy, tuned in to watch Dr. Angelo Borelli, director of the national office of Protezione Civile, hold a press conference to report the data and discuss the daily situation. News of the skyrocketing numbers of total and new cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and recovered, was terrifying. I was fascinated to begin to understand the relationship of national to regional and local government. The coverage is national but health insurance and the health system are administered by the Regions. Everyone is covered. When people were furloughed or lost their jobs, they did not lose health insurance coverage because insurance and work are not linked. I am covered by the Italian national health insurance and felt relieved worrying about might happen were I to become sick there.

Venice’s main Ospedale del’ Angelo is in Mestre. If someone in the historic center of Venice came down with COVID-19, they were moved to the Angelo, to keep the Ospedale Civile free for other types of illness.

My Veneto neighbors and friends watched over me. They became my pod, my family. When the spazzini (trash collectors) rang the doorbell each morning, the two other families in our palazzo and I would meet at the door to exchange news. Our concern was for my upstairs neighbor’s father, a doctor in another region, who was hospitalized in intensive care with Covid-19. One of their children had been visiting the grandparents, but because the borders between regions were closed, my neighbors were not able to retrieve their 7-year old son for six weeks. 

Left: Amy Worthen's drawing of  terrace view, wisteria, helicopter

I worked on lacemaking, read books, communicated with family and friends around the world. I watched theatrical offerings on the internet. Dinners on Zoom and HouseParty. But mostly, I made drawings: of rosemary blooming, wisteria, views of the back gardens, and the canals seen from my terrace. I created a visual diary of my experience of COVID-19 up to late June, drawing the sounds of the church bells, overheard snatches of conversation, and the chirping of birds. I felt safe.

The pandemic peaked in the Veneto on March 31. After its severe and well-enforced lockdown, the Region began its carefully-phased reopening on May 4. Many businesses reopened. On June 2, a few flights to and from Venice resumed. Internal tourists were allowed to visit. In mid-June, the borders were opened to EU residents. Case numbers have declined to a point where life is returning to near-normal. In Vò Euganeo where COVID-19 was first detected in Italy, schools will reopen on September 7. 

I was originally scheduled to return to Des Moines on May 12, but flights continued to be cancelled, rescheduled, and cancelled again. I finally made it back to Iowa on June 23. After spending two weeks in quarantine in Des Moines, I have begun to learn to live in our new reality here. I hope that we Iowans can learn from our Veneto Sister State friends, pull together, and prioritize overcoming the pandemic. 

Ce la faremo.