Last year my wife and I rented a house for four months in a small town in the Marche region of Italy, where we lived while I applied for and obtained recognition of my Italian citizenship. While there, we observed firsthand how Italians are dealing with the pandemic, and I can say we both felt many times safer there than in Maine. The contrast is apparent everywhere you look.

People stroll along the Via del Corso in Rome on Wednesday. Mask wearing has not become politicized in Italy. Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

The big difference stems from the fact that the national government is truly in charge, and once policies and procedures are hashed out at that level, they are given to the regions (equivalent of our states) to implement. Consequently, there is no need for individual business owners, local government officials – anyone, for that matter – to have to decide what to do regarding mask wearing and many other precautions. We in the U.S. are still hearing our government “suggest” and “recommend” measures to protect ourselves from infection. Not so in Italy. Italians may at times grumble, but they typically follow the rules and don’t make a fuss.

“In Italy, we might have a reputation as being a nation of disorganized rule breakers, but the truth is people tend to follow the advice of their doctors,” Giovanni Sebastiani, a researcher and member of Italy’s National Research Council, told journalist Eric J. Lyman in 2020.

If you wish to shop indoors, or get on a train or bus, you must wear a mask. If you want to eat indoors at a restaurant or visit a museum, you must first provide proof of vaccination. No proof, no entry. Offenders, both patrons and business owners, face steep fines for violations, which are enforced.

Also, providing that proof is easier and more verifiable than here, because the vaccination records are kept in a national database. People carry their digital “Green Pass” with them on their phones, which has a QR code that is scanned by the checker’s phone. If a green checkmark appears, the verification is confirmed and in goes the customer. It takes 15 seconds, tops. If someone has eaten in a crowded restaurant and it is later learned someone there tested positive for COVID, a contact tracing list already has been compiled and is ready to be used because of the record of the checks. When I provided proof of vaccination via my Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card, people often didn’t know what to make of it because it is so low-tech compared to their digital version. One checker said to me, “This is the best you Americans can do?” Apparently so.

They even are still conscious of social distancing directives. I was in a checkout line at the supermarket once, and the woman behind me got a bit too close to me. I hadn’t noticed, but the cashier did. She stopped work and swiftly told her to move back.

Italians shake their heads at news reports from the U.S. that describe the politicization of mask wearing, and the ways coronavirus mandates – if enacted at all – differ from state to state. We once asked some locals if they knew what percentage of people in Italy was refusing to get vaccinated. They paused before answering, seeming to not understand the question. “You mean if they are offered it? None that we know.”

The bottom line is that all of the above has contributed to Italians going about their daily lives largely as before the pandemic. The added accommodations are not only deemed necessary, but most also regard them as relatively minor adjustments. Where the Italians are showing solidarity, too many Americans choose to protest infringement upon their liberty, and latch on to absurd pseudo-medical pronouncements as reasons for not observing COVID-related government advisories.

I am saddened, because I’ve experienced how another nation has coped better with the pandemic than our own, in large part by virtue of people simply cooperating.

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