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Former Harford resident talks about her family living in Italy during national coronavirus lockdown

Melissa Innocenti, center, formerly of Churchville, is with her daughter, Juliana, and husband, Robert, shortly after the family arrived in Vicenza, Italy, in late January. All three are now living in the midst of a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Italy.
Melissa Innocenti, center, formerly of Churchville, is with her daughter, Juliana, and husband, Robert, shortly after the family arrived in Vicenza, Italy, in late January. All three are now living in the midst of a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Italy. (Melissa Innocenti/Provided Photo / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Melissa Innocenti and her family arrived in Italy on Jan. 20, having moved from their former home in Harford County as her husband started a new job as a U.S. Army civilian employee on a military post near the city of Vicenza in the northeastern part of the country.

It was a matter of days from when the Innocentis arrived in Vicenza to when the first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, were reported in Italy.

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Italy, a country of more than 60 million people, went into a nationwide lockdown March 9 — people can only leave their residences if they need to go to work, shop for groceries or have medical needs, Innocenti said. Schools have been closed, events open to the public have been banned and religious services suspended, according to CNN.

“They don’t want any non-essential movement right now,” Innocenti said of Italian officials.

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There are currently more than 74,000 cases of the disease in Italy with 7,505 deaths so far, according to the World Health Organization’s website. Italy is one of the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus, other than China, which has nearly 82,000 cases and 3,293 deaths.

The United States ranks third in the world with more than 63,500 confirmed cases and 884 deaths, according to the WHO.

Innocenti, 51, a former resident of Churchville, spoke to an Aegis reporter March 24 via Facebook video chat from the two-bedroom hotel room in Vicenza where she, her husband Robert and their 10-year-old daughter, Juliana, have been living since they arrived in January.

“We’re making the best of it, just like everybody else,” she said of life during the national lockdown. “We’re going to get through this.”

Life on lockdown

Italian officials have placed strict limitations on where people can go. Restaurants and parks have been closed throughout the nation, and a number of food stands on U.S. military bases are closed, too. People are restricted to within 200 meters — about 650 feet — of their residences, although they can go beyond that boundary to certain locations such as post offices, grocery stores, pharmacies and news stands.

Identification documents are required when traveling, according to Innocenti.

She walks the family dog, an 8-month-old male Labrador retriever named Sawyer, making sure to stay within the 200-meter boundary outside the hotel. Juliana hangs out with her mother during the walks.

“He’s our little break from everything, our diversion,” Innocenti said of the dog.

When the family does go out in the community or on the Army post, they practice frequent hand washing and disinfecting.

“Any time we go out, we have hand sanitizer with us,” Innocenti said. “We have hand wipes, we have Clorox wipes.”

There are hand-washing stations in facilities on post still open to visitors such as the post exchange, commissary and post office.

“When we get in the car, we clean our hands,” she said. 'When we get home, we wash."

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Innocenti has seen people wearing face masks when out and about, but she does not typically wear one as she would rather they be saved for health care workers.

As of last week, the Innocentis and other hotel guests, many of them Americans, have stood outside in the evenings singing various songs, similar to people in other parts of Italy who stood on their balconies and played or sang opera.

“The other people that are stuck here, it gives us a sense of unity,” she said. “We’ve all left our homes back in the United States.”

She said the singing has helped “break up the monotony” and brought people together.

“We’re hoping that, once this is all over, we’re going to have a big party,” Innocenti said.

Family ‘jumped at the chance’

Innocenti grew up near Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is a veteran of the Navy. She spent 13 years in active-duty service and eight years in the naval reserves. She also has worked for the Department of the Navy, but became a stay-at-home parent after Juliana was born in 2009.

Her family moved to Harford County in 2010, as her husband worked as a Army civilian employee at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Robert Innocenti retired in 2015, but he recently came out of retirement and started looking for work with the Army overseas. The opportunity came about to work in Vicenza, Italy, as the Army operates two facilities near the city, including Caserma Ederle, the home of the U.S. Army Garrison Italy, and Caserma Del Din. The latter was established in 2013 as the headquarters of the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne).

“We jumped at the chance, couldn’t resist,” she said of the opportunity to move to Italy, a country she, her husband and daughter have visited on multiple occasions.

Robert, who is assigned to Caserma Ederle, has been “teleworking” from the family’s room at the hotel, Melissa said. Juliana, who had been attending a Defense Department school on post, is now taking classes online via multiple Google platforms. Melissa continues to be a stay-at-home mom and joked that she is “earning my teaching degree” while supervising her daughter’s schooling.

Innocenti said she loves the Italian lifestyle, which she described as “very family oriented,” and noted that people live at “just a more relaxed pace” compared to the U.S.

She described Vicenza, which is between Verona and Venice, as “a very beautiful town.” The city is part of the Veneto region, and it dates back to the second century B.C. The city and multiple Palladian-style villas in the surrounding area became a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1990s. The Palladian architectural style was developed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who lived during the 1500s and studied classical Roman architecture. The design of a number of buildings in Vicenza, as well as villas outside the city, has been attributed to Palladio.

Innocenti said the design of Vicenza is more spread out, compared to communities further south in the area of the nation’s capital, Rome, where houses are close together.

“The buildings are just gorgeous,” she said of Vicenza. “The architecture is wonderful.”

Juliana and her classmates were assigned a project on Palladio’s work while learning at home. They watched an online video about the architect and then used supplies they had on hand to create a drawing or build a model based on the Palladian style, Innocenti said.

Online schooling

Juliana, who attended Churchville Elementary School when her family lived in Harford County, has gone from her DOD school to learning at home since late February.

The students have been taking their classes, including math, grammar, social studies, Italian language and customs, even “specials” such as art, music and physical education, online. Juliana’s class is about 30 students, and they connect with their teacher online, twice a week, in groups of four to five.

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Juliana can talk with her teacher, and her teacher with her, via Google Chat, and she can talk with her classmates. The technology has allowed Juliana to keep in touch with her peers during the lockdown, as “they just all know they can’t see anybody [in person] right now,” according to Innocenti.

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“It’s all working out; I’m thankful for that,” Innocenti said of the distance learning.

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