February 29, 2020 / 3:44 PM / a month ago

UPDATE 2-Schools, universities to stay shut as northern Italy battles coronavirus

* Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna schools to remain closed

* Three regions account for over 90% of coronavirus cases

* Government increasingly worried by economic impact (Adds details, quotes)

By Crispian Balmer

ROME, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Schools and universities will stay closed for a second consecutive week in three northern Italian regions in an effort to contain Europe's worst outbreak of coronavirus, dashing any hopes of a swift return to normality.

Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna have accounted for more than 90% of some 900 confirmed cases of the virus that have so far come to light in Italy, as well as all the 21 fatalities.

Looking to halt the spread of the highly infectious disease, the government last week banned public gatherings across much of northern Italy and shuttered educational centres.

The disease is concentrated in just a few areas and some locals had hoped that schools in places with few or no coronavirus cases could now re-open, but Stefano Bonaccini, the head of Emilia-Romagna, said this would not happen.

"The closure of nurseries, schools and universities is confirmed for next week for the three regions most affected: Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna," he wrote on Facebook, saying the national science council had recommended the move.

However, he said discussions were still continuing into whether museums, theatres and cinemas, that have also been closed since last Sunday, might be able to re-open.

Italy's neighbours are also taking measures to contain the spread of the virus. France on Saturday put a temporary ban on public gatherings with more than 5,000 people, while Switzerland on Friday banned events expected to draw more than 1,000.

In Italy the government is growing alarmed about the economic impact of the virus, which has struck the industrial heartland of the euro zone's third largest economy and driven tourists away from some of Italy's most visited cities, such as Venice.

Italy's hoteliers warned that a U.S. government advisory calling on Americans to reconsider non-essential travel to Italy could prove the "final blow" to the country's embattled tourism sector, which has reported a wave of cancellations this week.

The REF Ricerche thinktank predicted on Saturday that the crisis might cause Italy's already fragile economy to contract between 1% and 3% in the first two quarters of the year, pushing the country into its fourth recession in 12 years.

The cabinet introduced limited measures to help businesses in the so-called redzone -- two areas of Lombardy and Veneto that are under quarantine -- and has promised broader help for impacted companies in the coming days.

Italy's sporting world has also been badly hit.

Five Serie A matches, including a key clash between Juventus and Inter Milan, have been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis, Italy's soccer League said on Saturday.

The matches had been due to go ahead behind closed doors after the ban on public gatherings, however a soccer official, speaking off the record, said broadcasters and fans did not want the matches to be played in empty stadiums and the clubs themselves were concerned about the loss of gate receipts.

Highlighting the high rate of infection, one Serie C soccer team from the region of Tuscany, Pianese, has put its squad in quarantine for two weeks after four of its players plus a club official tested positive for coronavirus.

Twenty of the 30 Serie C matches scheduled for this weekend have been postponed because of the virus. (Additional reporting by Elvira Pollina; Editing by Mike Harrison and Clelia Oziel)

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