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Aspen woman shares experiences in Italy during COVID-19 outbreak

Anna Binkley at a cooking class in Venice in early February.
Anna Binkley/Courtesy photo

When Anna Binkley packed her bags for Italy in February, her intention was to cook, write and paint solo for roughly three months as a creative retreat of sorts before returning home to Aspen.

She wasn’t scared of traveling alone. The 70-year-old values her independence, yet at the same time promised her family she’d be cautious about putting herself in potentially dangerous situations.

But Binkley had no idea that shortly after she’d arrive in Italy, it would quickly become one of the world’s hotspots for the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease associated with it.

“When I left, as far as I know, the world had no knowledge that there was any problem in Italy and I had no real reason to anticipate that Italy would become an epicenter for this virus,” Binkley said.

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On Monday morning, the start of her 10th day in self-quarantine at her home in Aspen, Binkley went over the coronavirus timeline she witnessed while in Italy.

Before she left and when she arrived in Venice on Feb. 3, Binkley said COVID-19 wasn’t of any concern to her, as there were not cases confirmed in Italy that she knew of and she didn’t know much about the coronavirus spread beyond China, where it originated.

At the beginning of her stay, Binkley and thousands of others took part in the Carnevale di Venezia, or Carnival of Venice — a renowned annual mask- and costume-filled celebration that was set to take place from Feb. 8 to Feb. 25 — and she went to numerous galleries, museums and concerts to soak in Italian art and culture, gaining inspiration for her work.

Sometime around Feb. 17 or 18, Binkley said she remembers seeing the newspaper headlines confirming three Venetians had tested positive for COVID-19. By Feb. 24, that number had jumped to around 14, the entire city was on lockdown and the rest of the carnival was canceled.

“I think it became real for me the last week I was in Venice realizing that all of the things that people were advised to get were unavailable. There were no masks, there were no gloves, there was no hand sanitizer,” Brinkley said of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy.

“I watched that happen in a 24-hour period and because it happened so fast I went, ‘Woah, this is a downhill slide. Venice is not going to weather this well.’”

Binkley said she decided to leave Venice earlier than she had originally planned and go to Rapallo, where there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time. She said while she thought about returning to the U.S., she felt it would be an irresponsible thing to do if she was infected, deciding to wait it out to see if she developed symptoms.

In Rapallo, Binkley implemented her own social distancing but felt that the information just wasn’t there for government officials or locals to understand how the virus was spreading in Italy or how serious of a threat it was.

But as more cases were confirmed in the northern parts of the country and beyond, Binkley felt the Italian government acted in full force to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus; it was just a little late. She said it was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

The number of people allowed in grocery stores and pharmacies at one time was restricted; lines were forbidden, forcing people to circle around the take-out restaurants and stores they were waiting to enter; and in Rome, the military and law enforcement presence seemed to be heightened, as officers walked around with guns out of holsters and ensured restaurants closed by the evening curfew, Binkley recalled.

“The last day when I walked through Piazza Navona I stopped for a second to get my phone out of my bag and immediately two policeman ran up to me and said, ‘Move, move, you have to move, you can’t stand — there’s no standing in Rome,’” Binkley said, which was earlier this month.

“Everything was deserted then, there was nobody anywhere. I wasn’t scared for myself so much as I was scared for everyone because it had gotten so evident that (Italians) were underwater from a health care standpoint.”

Brinkley explained that after staying briefly in Rapallo and Florence, which both went on lockdown or “shelter in place” mode while she was there, she went to Rome because it was a place she knew would be easier to get a flight back to the United States from.

The day after she arrived in Rome the whole country went on lockdown, Binkley said, and soon after President Donald Trump issued sweeping travel restrictions from Europe to the U.S., signaling to Binkley that she couldn’t wait any longer to get home.

While she hasn’t had any notable COVID-19 symptoms so far and is unsure if she has the virus, Binkley has been self-quarantining with her family in Aspen since she returned March 13.

Her son was laid off from his job in Snowmass, her daughter came back from job searching in Los Angeles and Binkley said it hasn’t been the most ideal situation for her family, which has grown out of the need and desire to all live under the same roof.

“It’s difficult when you have kids who are ready to not be under their mother’s wing to come back and it’s hard for me to not be a mother,” Binkley said. “It’s something I think all families are going through.”

Since she’s been back in Aspen, Binkley said she’s shared her experiences with her friends, urging them to social distance and imparting the fact that acting early and aggressively against COVID-19 will make all the difference in keeping what’s happening in Italy from happening in the United States.

But for Binkley, the novel coronavirus hasn’t squashed her desire to travel and she fully intends to “hit the road” in the fall again if it is safe to do so.

“I think we as a community are understanding how necessary compliance is, but I saw firsthand what not knowing this compliance needed to be does,” Binkley said.

“The Italian people didn’t know, but we know and in my mind there’s just no excuse now for not being on top of this immediately. … But this is not going to change how I choose to live my life in the future. I will be more aware of the potential for something like this to occur again because we all adjust. We have to. It’s a changing world.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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