Tourism hot-spot Italy is now struggling to contain coronavirus: What to know about travel

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Italian health officials are trying to contain an outbreak that now amounts to 200 confirmed new coronavirus cases and five people dead. So what does that mean for North American tourists?

The World Economic Forum ranked Italy as the eighth-most attractive country for tourists in 2019. It was the fifth-most visited country in the world, right behind China in 2018, according to the World Tourism Organization.

Now the outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus in northern Italy, where schools are closed, the Venice Carnival celebration was canceled and major soccer events were postponed, is the hardest-hit country first outside of Asia.

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was first reported in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019. The virus causes flu-like symptoms, like fever, coughing, sneezing and respiratory problems. COVID-19 is now classified as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” by the World Health Organization.

In the U.S., there are 14 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 426 tested, according to the CDC. Worldwide, the number of cases recently topped 79,000, CNN reported.

The United States has already issued stringent restrictions on travel to and from China, the center of the coronavirus outbreak. But there are no guidelines on travel to and from Europe yet, where plane tickets are cheaper and trains could make it easier to spread the disease.

Health officials are struggling to find “patient zero” for the Italian epidemic.

American tourists are rethinking vacation plans, though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended canceling travel to or from Italy. The country is classified under “watch.” That means means travelers should take precautions while traveling in Europe, like frequently washing hands and using hand sanitizer.

The CDC also recommends if you spent time in Italy during the past 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing to seek medical advice and avoid travel.

Diana Maiola opened her Rocky River travel company “Italian Tours by Diana” in 2001. Travelers have called with concerns about what will happen if the outbreak escalates, she said, but none have canceled.

Maiola is currently in Rome, which is south of the outbreak. Life there is going on as normal, she said, with long lines outside of the Vatican and streets crowded with people.

The outbreak happened in the northern part of Italy and government officials have taken aggressive measures to contain it, which Maiola trusts.

“We’re just keeping our ear to the ground,” she said.

Kent State University spokeswoman Emily Vincent wrote in an email that the university is working closely with the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy to monitor its Florence campus. All school trips to Venice and Milan have been canceled, per Italian health official restrictions.

The school will continue to work closely with Italian officials and follow U.S. and Italian guidelines.