|A photo taken in March 2020 of the center of Sacile. Normally this bustling spot would be filled with people. Photograph by Jason Hebert|
Editors’ Note: This post was updated on March 19, 2020.
Growing up in New Hampshire, I’m used to a degree of isolation from having to remain indoors during winter months. The isolation I experienced then pales in comparison to the conditions we’re currently facing here in Italy, where the streets are empty and constantly patrolled by Italian polizia and Carabinieri. The schools, restaurants, cafes, and shops are closed. The only authorized businesses that are allowed to remain open are grocery stores and pharmacies. COVID-19 has essentially reshaped Italy and everything it represents.
I moved to Italy in 2015, where for the first three years, I represented the United States as a prosecutor for the Air Force. I now work as a special victims counsel, representing survivors of rape and sexual assault. My wife, three kids, and I live in the town of Sacile in the province of Pordenone, located about 50 miles north of Venice. Sacile, like most Italian towns, is typically filled with vibrant signs of life: people riding bicycles, walking, eating gelato, and sitting at cafes sipping tall glasses of prosecco. The Italian culture is laid-back and embraces the concept of simplicity. This approach is highlighted by the phrase “a domani” (“tomorrow”), which is used by locals to mean “no hurry.” But for the past four weeks, that has not been the norm.
Upon confirmation of the first several COVID-19 patients, the Italian government decided to close all schools. COVID-19 hit northern Italy faster than any of us could have anticipated. Although the Schengen Agreement of 1985 has allowed for uninterrupted transit across European borders, the heavy saturation of the virus in the northern part of the country has thrown borders into flux, with countries closing to Italy. This has further stressed a situation already taut with fear and uncertainty.
Italian healthcare providers are incredibly hard working and extremely compassionate, but currently, most of the local hospitals are out of supplies, have no ICU beds, no ambulances, and no staff to tend to new patients. This has forced Italy to abandon isolated red zones and quarantine the entire country.
As of this week, the Italian government has declared many new restrictions that surpassed even the most stringent expectations. A decree was issued on March 11 that mandates the closure of virtually all businesses and gives power to local municipalities to stop public transit. Violations of this new decree will result in heavy fines or jail time. These new measures have sent the local population flooding to grocery stores to stock up on necessities. “A domani” is simply no longer an acceptable answer. However, unlike in the United States, toilet paper, water, and milk are still in stock at most local stores. All the while, everyone is abiding by the one-meter social distancing rule, which is a rare sight since the Italian culture relies on physical contact—the mere thought of “personal space” is considered ridiculous. With new travel restrictions not having an expiration date, I’ve had to create a plan to continue zealously representing my clients.
Thankfully, I am no stranger to teleworking since a vast majority of my clients are geographically separated throughout Europe, but I’m now facing the challenge of having to work entirely over the phone and through email. In response to the quarantine, I’ve implemented a four-step process to make sure I can maintain competent representation of all clients.
Step 1: Logistics
I backed up all files for easy transport home, updated office voicemail, placed signs on the door, and secured the office.
Step 2: Clients
I called each client and provided an update on the Italian quarantine, reassuring everyone that I am still tracking cases and protecting rights and interests. Even though Italy has been thrown into chaos, for most of my clients, their well-being is dependent on the outcome of an upcoming trial.
Step 3: Prosecution
It’s been essential to contact each prosecuting office to confirm they have my current contact information. It’s also been important to provide a brief synopsis of the quarantine measures so there is no expectation for me to travel for a court appearance.
Step 4: The Unimaginable
In the event that someone in my house becomes ill, and I must divert my full attention, I have granted access to my case files to a supervising attorney outside of Italy. This attorney has access to a quick-reference client contact sheet that can be used to easily contact all of my clients to inform them of the situation.
So far these simple, common sense preventative measures have helped me maintain my duties to clients. And in the end, I’m optimistic that we will overcome this situation. But in the meantime, “andra tutto bene” (“everything will be fine”).
Captain Jason Hebert is admitted to practice law before the Supreme Courts of Texas and New Hampshire, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.