ROME - Public transport in Italy is increasingly seen by experts and policymakers as one of the places where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is highest, as the government grapples with a surge in cases.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte issued new restrictions on bars, schools and restaurants but critics say crowded buses and metros in the rush hour are a greater threat.
During the summer, when infection rates were still low, the government set an 80 percent maximum capacity on buses and metros. However, few if any controls are in place to enforce the limit, which experts say is in any case too lax.
"Eighty percent is too much. Sometimes it is impossible to keep the safety distance," of at least 1 meter between passengers, Massimo Andreoni, infectious disease professor at Rome's Tor Vergata university, told Reuters.
Italy, the first European country to be hit hard by COVID-19 in the spring, got its outbreak under control by the summer thanks to a two-month rigid lockdown, but it has seen daily cases rise exponentially in the past two weeks, hitting a new record of almost 22,000 on Tuesday.
"At 6 p.m. public transport is often crowded. You take the risk because you have to get to work. You wear a mask, you take hand gel with you. It's the new normal," Elio Venafro said after getting off a bus in central Rome on Wednesday.
Conte said this week he thought public transport was "above all" the place where the infection is circulating.
However he gave no sign of addressing the problem directly, saying instead that his curbs on bars, restaurants, gyms and other activities would in any case reduce the use of buses and metros.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League opposition party, said on Monday: "The problem is public transport, the problem is the underground in Rome or Milan, it's the buses, not the gyms or cinemas."
Italy's "second wave" of the epidemic is heavily concentrated in large cites, including the northern financial capital of Milan, and Naples in the south.
"In large cities crowded public transport is obviously more of a problem than in small towns," Andreoni said.