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Mystic woman in Italy urges Americans to stay home: 'I feel a lot safer here'

Italy — In the town of Pozzuoli in Naples, Italy, the streets are empty. There are no cars on the roads normally congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic, and there are no shoppers milling about. Police check for documents that identify people and their right to be outside. Homemade signs reading "everything is going to be okay" hang from balconies.

For one southeastern Connecticut couple, Malia Cordero of Mystic and Cameren McGinn of Norwich, it's a stark contrast to the images they're seeing from home, where Americans have been flocking to stores to hoard toilet paper and students have been defending their right to party on the beach for spring break, disregarding federal guidelines to socially distance.

"I'd rather be here, I feel a lot safer here," said Cordero, who was born and raised in Mystic but moved to Italy a little over a year ago with McGinn, who is in the Navy and stationed in Naples. The couple met at the University of Connecticut, where Cordero, now 23, was studying wildlife conservation and McGinn, 25, was studying English and political science. They now live off of the military base in the Arco Felice neighborhood that is normally bustling with people shopping at the local markets and driving on the seaside town's crowded roads.

On Wednesday, McGinn was promoted to lieutenant. His "promotion-at-home" took place over video chat with his commanding officer. Then, the couple brought their dog, Tikka, up to their roof deck — one of the few outside spaces they are allowed to be in.

"We can normally hear lots of street traffic and chatter from up here, but right now it's very quiet, barely any boats out on the water," Cordero said, as she watched Tikka play with a red ball in the sun.

"It's totally dead, it's really wild. Normally in our area, the roads around commuting times are so busy," Cordero said. "I'm in a pretty walkable neighborhood, so on a nice day I'm used to seeing people walking around and going to the shops, local fruit stands; people here are more used to fresh foods and the special for the day so it's normal to see people out walking, shopping, walking their dogs."

Residents are no longer allowed to go outside unless it's for work, to purchase necessary groceries or go to the pharmacy. They can no longer take their dogs on walks — they can let them out to go to the bathroom, but have to get right back inside. At their apartment complex, Cordero said residents have been taking turns making laps around the outdoor courtyard.

When they do go outside to go to work on the Naval base in the town of Gricignano di Aversa, Cordero at a veterinarian's office, they face being stopped by police. They carry forms issued by the government that explain the purpose of their movement.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte instituted a nationwide lockdown that is in effect until mid-April. Fines are in place to prevent people from being outside for nonessential reasons, and anyone who has tested positive for the virus and goes outside can face jail time.

Though the tight restrictions and isolation are jarring, Cordero said she would rather be in Italy than in the United States, where she thinks people are more resistant to restrictions and are thinking more about their individual needs than the greater good. "Italians seem to care more about their local communities," she said.

Her parents, José and Linda Cordero, are still in Mystic, and McGinn has family in Norwich and Pawtucket, R.I. Despite the family ties, Cordero said she is glad they are not at home. "I definitely think I feel safer here than I would in the U.S.," she said. "I didn't even think about going home."

She also said "health care is socialized, so I believe the locals are better off," though she noted that the couple's health insurance comes from the military.

"I definitely think there's more trust in the government here and in the police, and there's a social safety net that's set up here when it comes to health care and mortgages," she said. She has thought about how stricter regulations would fare back home: "I don't think people would respond well to that, just due to Americans' relationships with police, people here aren't worried about getting shot."

Even without the police presence, Cordero she said she thinks her neighbors in Naples would be practicing strict social distancing that seems to be difficult for many Americans.

"I'm totally craving Chinese takeout and eggrolls but I understand why it's just safer not to. Takeout isn't really a big thing here, but I don't know if that's something you can take away from the American people, we're used to that spoiled living," she said.

When McGinn went out to get groceries, Cordero said he waited outside the store for 15 minutes to take his turn, as stores are limiting the number of people allowed inside. Some grocery stores are doing deli-style ticket taking systems and most people outside are wearing masks, she said. The grocery stores are fully stocked and there is plenty of toilet paper.

The intensity of the situation in Italy "definitely makes you evaluate what you need versus what you want," she said. "Whereas back home, you have people hoarding toilet paper and ignoring the people down the street."

Though they're grateful for the strict lockdown, the couple can't work from home and has been "slipping into madness a little bit" from boredom, Cordero joked. They've resorted to binging lots of shows and movies on Disney+ and video games for McGinn. Though Cordero said she doesn't want to encourage Americans to head to the stores, she said it would be wise to stock up on puzzles and board games.

They also have been walking laps in their yard and the base is doing livestream workouts, craft activities and story times for people with children. Cordero has been painting after not doing so for many years, and the couple has been trying new recipes they normally wouldn't have time to try. They've also been keeping in touch with family and friends abroad — "it's a good time to catch up with all those friends and family you've lost touch with," Cordero said.

She's looking forward to seeing the good that comes out of the crisis and said she has been happy to see communities coming together and hearing stories of neighbors helping one another back home.

The U.S. this week surpassed Italy in number of cases, with 186,101 Americans testing positive and 3,603 dead as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cordero said that she hopes the American government will learn from how quickly the virus spread in Italy and be more proactive than reactive, and that the American people will "take it seriously and stay home."

t.hartz@theday.com

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