By James Mackenzie
MILAN (Reuters) - Italy on Sunday ordered bars and restaurants to close by 6 p.m. and shut public gyms, cinemas and swimming pools to try to halt a rapid resurgence in the coronavirus that has pushed daily infection rates to new records.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the measures were aimed at protecting both public health and the economy and should allow the rising curve of the epidemic to be brought under control in the next few weeks.
"We think that we will suffer a bit this month but by gritting our teeth with these restrictions, we'll be able to breathe again in December," he told a news conference.
Italy, once the country hardest hit by the pandemic in the industrialised world, has been overtaken by others in Europe including Spain, France and Britain, but infection rates have been rebounding rapidly and health services have come under increasing pressure.
Underlining the spread of the disease, the main spokesmen for both Conte and President Sergio Mattarella said they had tested positive for the virus. Conte's spokesman Rocco Casalino said in a statement he had last seen Conte on Tuesday at which time they had worn masks and maintained social distancing.
The new measures, which take effect on Monday and were agreed with regional authorities, follow two nights of protests in Naples and Rome against curfews introduced in a number of regions last week.
Aware of the huge cost of shutting down the economy, the Rome government has said it does not want to repeat the blanket lockdown ordered in the first phase of the crisis. But it has been forced to ratchet up restrictions steadily as the pandemic has raced ahead after slowing down in the summer.
The decree encourages people not to go out and to limit contacts at home with anyone outside their immediate family, but does not impose a mandatory nationwide curfew or lockdown and allows shops and most businesses to remain open.
However, service in bars and restaurants will be subject to a series of controls to limit contagion, and cinemas, theatres, gaming halls and discotheques will be closed.
The decree also directs that up to three quarters of high school teaching should be online to limit the number of pupils in school buildings.
On Saturday, authorities reported a new record daily total of 19,644 infections, as well as 151 deaths from the respiratory disease.
The protests in Naples and Rome, while limited in scale, underlined the tense political climate facing Conte who was generally praised for his handling of the initial phase of the crisis. However he has come under increasing fire for failing to strengthen preparations including testing and contact tracing over the summer.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)