CAPRI, Italy — On a sweltering Monday morning in August, half an hour before a ferry to Capri was scheduled to depart from a harbor in Naples, dozens of sweating people crowded on the dock, their face masks in various states of ineffectiveness.
The ferry ride to Capri, an island off the coast of southern Italy, lasts about an hour. Once on the island, many of those on board spent the rest of the day lining up for the funicular, for buses, for taxis and for boats.
After a strict lockdown this spring, during which most people were barred from entering the island, Capri reopened to tourists in June, a few months later than usual. Like other parts of Italy, the region that Capri is in, Campania, has seen a large drop in international tourists this summer — 85 to 90 percent less than last year, according to Gianni Terminiello, who is in charge of statistics at Campania’s tourism agency.
Capri made up some of the difference last month with Italian tourists; the mayor of Capri estimated that thousands of people were arriving daily in August.
The visitors carry a health risk, but Capri’s 14,000 or so residents rely on tourism, so the stores, hotels and beach clubs have reopened, with some operating at full or near-full capacity. On a recent weekday, beach coves were dotted with towels and bright, colored umbrellas, restaurants like the popular Da Paolino were booked solid (weeks in advance), and the cafes in the “piazzetta” — the square at the center of Capri — were filled from morning to night.
According to health authorities in Campania, the island had zero cases of Covid-19 in June and July. Sixteen were recorded in the second half of August.
The dreaminess of Capri’s rugged landscape and jewel-toned sea has long attracted the wealthy, famous and powerful, beginning about 2,000 years ago with the Roman emperor Tiberius, who built 12 villas on the island and is said to have thrown people who displeased him off Capri’s cliffs.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Axel Munthe, the physician and companion of Queen Victoria of Sweden, built a holiday getaway in Capri, and several decades later, in the early 1900s, the writer Maxim Gorky hosted his friend Vladimir Lenin at his Capri home. Gorky was one of the island’s famous exiles; another was the poet Pablo Neruda.)
“People come for three things: the sun and the sea, the food and the shopping,” said Federico Alvarez de Toledo, 56, who has lived on Capri for nine years and whose family has owned a house in the town center since 1860.
Giovanna Gentile Ferragamo, who serves on the board of directors at Salvatore Ferragamo S.p.A., the luxury goods company, grew up visiting Capri with her parents. She recalls riding donkeys around the island as a child.
“If they wanted to stop, there was no way you could get them to go,” Mrs. Gentile Ferragamo said of the animals. “You had to wait until they had their lunch. But we were not in a hurry.” Now, Mrs. Gentile Ferragamo, 77, visits her villa on the island two or three times a year and spends most of her time on her “gozzo,” a traditional local boat, lounging in the sun during the day and catching squid in the evening.
“Everything is good in Capri,” she said.
Still, the pandemic has touched the island in many ways.
In early August, Marino Lembo, the mayor of Capri, fearful of the effects that the crush of visitors could have on the island’s zero infections, made masks mandatory in the busiest parts of the island, like the center square and its adjoining streets.
On a recent couple of days, tourists seemed to be following the rule — at least during the afternoons. Their faces covered, they strolled past display cases lined with limoncello, past Chanel and Gucci and Fendi, and past the artisanal boutiques selling sandals and perfumes.
But at night, as the hours ticked by and the coffee cups in the piazzetta were replaced by bottles of wine, the little cloth barriers slipped off, revealing more and more skin.
“Wearing masks doesn’t allow you to feel like you’re on vacation,” said Mariano Della Corte, 37, a journalist and social anthropologist who grew up in Capri and lives there now. “Capri is a place that’s exotic. You don’t care about your problems, your everyday life. But now, you cannot have the place as an escape.”
Fewer people on the island has meant a resurgence of nature, with cleaner waters and more space for the island’s fauna, but Caprese business owners lament the lack of one particular species this year: the Americans. Locals say that the island looks and feels very different without the summer set that migrates across the ocean and makes up the largest share of Capri’s foreign tourists.
“Life in Capri is connected to the presence of these people,” said Mr. Della Corte. “It’s kind of a second home for them. We see them as a part of the island.” Without the usual summer crowds, he said, “it seems like another place.”
Dinner is later, for one. “The Americans eat at 7 p.m.,” said Carmine De Martino, 39, the owner of Bagni Tiberio, a beach club opened in 1926 by Mr. De Martino’s great-grandfather among the ruins of a Roman villa. “The Italians eat at 10 p.m.” The general volume has increased, he added. “Americans are quieter. Now it’s a very loud place because we are noisy.”
Mr. Lembo, the mayor, said that Americans who are used to staying in Capri every summer in the same rooms in the same hotels have been calling to ask if they can come this year. “Obviously it is not possible,” he said.
Michela De Martino, 44, who with her sister and uncle owns Da Paolino, a former farm and bocce court that became a restaurant in the 1970s, said that about 80 percent of their customers are from the United States. Over the decades, those customers have included Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith and Uma Thurman.
Since travel restrictions were announced, she said, many Americans have been writing and calling, already making plans to eat at the lemon-tree-shaded restaurant in the summer of 2021.
A Symbol of the ‘Dolce Vita’
Americans, particularly famous ones, have been a dependable presence in Capri since the end of the Second World War. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, an oft-photographed visitor, made famous both a local style of sandal and a length of pants named after the island.
Frank Sinatra, Gracie Fields, and Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney recorded the same song about the island for their albums. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton visited the island’s popular beach club, the Canzone del Mare, in the early days of their relationship, when it was still somewhat of a secret.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated September 4, 2020
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why is it safer to spend time together outside?
- Outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
More recently, Kylie Jenner celebrated her 22nd birthday on the waters surrounding Capri on a yacht that was sold for $126 million, Jay-Z and Beyoncé received a standing ovation when leaving a local restaurant, and Jennifer Lopez hopped onto a table to spontaneously perform “Let’s Get Loud” at Taverna Anema e Core, the island’s can’t-miss nightclub.
“Capri, in the imagination, is still linked to the ‘dolce vita,’” said Michela Giovinetti, 46, a location manager who has lived on the island for 20 years. “Historically, Capri was a symbol of freedom and simplicity and hedonism.”
Ms. Giovinetti, who has worked on projects like Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue perfume ad campaigns and Louis Vuitton’s arty perfume commercial featuring Emma Stone, is feeling the pain of travel restrictions. Nearly all of her projects involve working with people from abroad, especially from the United States. So far this year, she has had only one request for her scouting services.
Americans who visit Capri have a different approach to shopping than Europeans, Mr. Alvarez de Toledo said. He runs Eco Capri, a boutique that sells scarves, caftans, bags, plates and other decorative items printed with designs created by his grandmother, Laetitia Cerio, an artist whose prints featured in Emilio Pucci’s first collection.
“The Americans, if they like two or three scarves, they’re like, ‘You know what, I’ll just take the three because I’ll figure out what to do with them later,’” Mr. Alvarez de Toledo said. “Europeans are much more, ‘Tomorrow I’ll come back and get it down to two, and then I’ll choose one.’ We’ve all been spoiled with that sort of optimism.”
Mr. Alvarez de Toledo said his store, like the island, has regulars, who vacation in Capri every year. “The Capri lovers,” he calls them. This season, with the Capri lovers stuck across the ocean, Eco Capri has seen a bump in online traffic, in response to which Mr. Alvarez de Toledo and his partners created a weekly newsletter to keep up with 500 of their customers from afar.
Other businesses offering luxury services also miss the American visitors, and their deep pockets. Vincenzo Murolo, 40, the owner and chief executive of Capri On Board, a yacht management company, said that this year, his business has decreased by 87 percent. Though Americans are not his only customers, they are his top customers, spending, on average, about 3,000 euros ($3,500).
“There’s a war between boat owners to have the American tourists because they’re the ones who spend the most money,” said Danilo Palumbo, 33, of Capri Boat Service, which offers tours around the area, with prices starting at 80 euros ($95) for the one-hour selfie tour to 4,000 euros ($4,750) for a half-day on a private yacht.
Despite all the nostalgia for the Americans, some residents noted that there are benefits to the much-reduced tourist traffic. “You can walk everywhere on the island, even during rush hour,” Mr. Della Corte said.
Others said the difference between the tourist season this year and last has hardly been noticeable.
Ersilia Buonocore, 63, one of the owners of a family-run gelato and pastry shop that her father opened in the center of town nearly five decades ago, found a couple of minutes to talk on a late afternoon. “It’s basically the same,” she said, before rushing back to serving a long line of customers eager for that most universal of luxuries: a cold, sweet treat.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.