21 Maggio 2020

Italians in a froth over costly coffee

Italians were relishing the return of a favourite ritual as they lined up at café counters to knock back their first espresso since lockdown. Soon, however, the coffee left a bitter taste for many as they discovered that the price had risen sharply – part of cost hikes for haircuts, fruit, vegetables and other essentials now prompting anger across the country. “In the centre of Rome an espresso that cost 1.10 before lockdown now costs up to 1.50 – it just won’ t do,” Stefano Zerbi, of the consumer group Codacons, said. Even minor rises in the price of an espresso in Italy can cause outrage. Codacons said that the price of an espresso in Milan had risen from 1.30 to as high as 2, while 50 cafés in Vicenza had struck a deal to raise the price from about 1 to 1.30. “We are reporting those cafés to Italy’ s anti-trust authority,” Mr Zerbi said. “We remember how prices were all rounded up when Italy moved from the lira to the euro in 1999 but this is much worse.” Italians getting their first haircut this week were also shocked to find prices had rocketed. “I was happy to finally get a cut until I saw price had gone up from 30 to 40,” a Roman woman emerging from a hairdresser yesterday said. Shoppers have already been hit by an 8 per cent rise in the price of fruit and 5 per cent in vegetable prices. “A third of food purchasing in Italy is by restaurants and cafés, so with them closed there should have been a drop in demand and a drop in prices, but the opposite happened,” Lorenzo Bazzana, an economist with Coldiretti, the farmer’ s lobby group, said. “One reason is that people couldn’ t shop around for good prices under lockdown, so there was less competition and now that shops have to invest in sanitiser, masks and temperature checks and can admit fewer customers due to distancing, prices won’ t come down.” Codacons has argued that businesses are receiving tax rebates and subsidies to cover those costs, but many business owners complain none of the promised government handouts have reached them due to sluggish bureaucracy. Shops that remain shuttered around Rome have put up posters stating: “We cannot open without government help – thousands of employees are at risk.” The cash crunch has driven hundreds of small shop and business owners to seek help from Italy’ s mafia-linked loan sharks. Calls for help to Italy’ s national anti-loan-sharking association have risen by more than 50 per cent this spring, a spokeswoman said. “The interest asked by loan sharks usually kicks off at 50 per cent but they then increase it until you are just paying a regular fixed sum and the amount of the original loan is forgotten,” she said. “The mafia is usually behind it because it has the ready cash.” When victims cannot pay, mobsters often take over their companies. Luciano Gualzetti, the association’ s vice-president, said that mob loan sharking was associated with southern Italy but was just as present in the wealthy north. “So many more firms are vulnerable after lockdown,” he said.

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