MILAN — After months of living under a strict lockdown in Italy, a closely gathered group of teenagers welcomed a warm evening this week at a verdant park in Milan, gazing at phone screens, embracing and forming a small circle around a playful dog. No one wore a mask.
Pinuccia Ciancalloni, 59, who was taking her daily walk through the park on Tuesday, pointed at the group with dread. To her, the expressions of young love and healthy sociability amounted to a profound threat.
“The problem is with young people,” she said.
Italy, the country in Europe with the highest median age among its residents, has long agonized over its relative shortage of youths and the energy they bring. (Around 23 percent of the population is above 65, and about 16 percent is between 15 and 30.)
But the coronavirus pandemic has led many Italians to center their anxieties — unfairly, some experts say — on the public gatherings of the country’s teenagers and young adults, fearing they could bring the virus to the older population, causing a second wave of infections and a new round of restrictions.
To some, the young are being scapegoated. They say that the vast majority have respected the social-distancing rules.
“Young people are not today’s plague spreaders,” Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the governing Democratic Party, wrote on Facebook.
But virologists said that while young people could become vehicles to spread the infection to their more vulnerable relatives, it was too early to assess the scope of the danger represented by those enjoying a night out.
Italy has no limit on crowd sizes — except that people must keep a safe distance of one meter apart — now that the lockdown, once the strictest in Europe, has been all but lifted. So long as they observe the distance rule, people may move and meet freely within one region.
But newspapers and television footage have shown a constant stream of images of what one newspaper called “young people’s crazy nights out.” Local officials have called Italy’s young people “irresponsible.” Doctors have accused them of being “assassins.”
Even the country’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has reprimanded the youth.
“It is not yet the time for parties, movidas and gatherings of all sorts,” Mr. Conte said in an address to Parliament on May 21, using a Spanish word for nightlife favored by older Italians. He added that everyone needed to take it easy — “especially the young.”
In Brescia, one of the hardest-hit cities in the outbreak, crowds of young people standing inches apart, with their masks under their chins, have infuriated officials who said the young Italians had failed their first exam and would be subject to a weekend curfew. When others crowded into squares in Turin and Verona, the mayor introduced a rule insisting that public drinking could take place only inside bars, with fines of up to 3,000 euros (about $3,300).
On Monday, the national government announced a call for 60,000 volunteers to visit gathering places to remind people to respect the social-distancing rules.
Many said it reminded them of a move by a police state and described it as the introduction of Orwellian “cocktail voyeurs,” or an “antivirus army.” The government later explained it had no intention of creating a nightlife police force.
But most attention has centered on a stretch of bars in Milan, along the canals in Navigli, a neighborhood favored by young professionals and students. This month, large crowds pushed Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, to threaten to close down the area. On Tuesday, he banned the sale of takeout alcoholic drinks after 7 p.m.
Giorgia Gangi, 22, who was drinking an aperitif on Tuesday with her friends at a bar in the area called Ugo, said that while a minority of young people might have behaved irresponsibly after the lockdown, the great majority respected the rules still in place.
“Now it looks like we are the culprits,” she said. “It’s a mountain out of a molehill.”
There are those, however, who acknowledge some irresponsible behavior by young people, but say it has largely been a result of inconsistent messages from officials and of the government’s largely abandoning the younger generation during the emergency, leaving schools and colleges closed while opening bars.
Raffaele Alberto Ventura, a writer and the author of “Theory of the Disadvantaged Class,” said that the fact that young people came under scrutiny only when discussing inessential leisure activities such as drinking and socializing highlighted that many were unemployed or unemployable and reliant on their parents’ income.
“This crisis puts under the spotlight a deeper problem: the existence of a whole age group that is forced to be inessential,” he wrote in an email on Monday.
Giulia Renna, 20, who was drinking an aperitif with her boyfriend in the Navigli area on Tuesday, agreed. She said that they had both lost their on-call jobs during the emergency and that she did not understand how, in a country that “does not consider young people,” they were suddenly being blamed.
“It’s unfair,” she declared.
Gemma Calamandrei, who leads the behavioral science and mental health department at Italy’s National Health Institute, said that young people became an easy target for a general population that has lost a sense of control.
She said the “criminalization” of youth was one way to cope with the fear.
“Finding an external visible enemy helps,” she explained.
Andrea Crisanti, a professor of microbiology who served as Veneto’s top consultant for the coronavirus emergency, also criticized the “condemnation of the youth,” saying that officials had never clearly explained social-distancing measures, the actual danger represented by young people and the use of masks.
Back at the Milan park, the teenagers still seemed confused about the Lombardy region’s rule that masks must be worn outside.
“I can see my friends outside, but wearing a mask,” Nina Bellafiore, 17, said, while wearing her mask around her arm.
One of her friends disagreed, saying that outdoors, masks were not compulsory.
While others blithely argued that only the old got sick and died from the virus, Ms. Bellafiore said she was not scared of infecting her parents because she did not hug her friends, she showered every time she returned home and she talked to her grandmother only from the street below her balcony.
“I never felt guilty,” she said.