Almighty cleanup: St. Peter's in Rome gets coronavirus scrub-down

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Next time you fret about sanitising your desk or kitchen counter because of the coronavirus, spare a thought for the workers whose task on Friday was to wipe down St. Peter’s Basilica.

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About a dozen, covered head-to-toe in protective gear, sprayed, sprinkled and swept as they disinfected the largest church in Christendom in preparation for its full reopening, expected soon.

Standing at the base of the massive columns, they resembled white ants as they cleaned the floor, with a surface of more than 15,000 square metres (160,000 square feet), as well as railings and statues close to floor level.

Doctor Andrea Arcangeli, deputy director of the Vatican’s Health and Hygiene department, said the cleaning materials included chlorine, ozone, alcohol and silver salts.

“Clearly these substances must be used correctly because we don’t want them to damage precious surfaces and works of art,” he told the official Vatican News website.

Probably the most coronavirus-safe artwork in the basilica has been Michelangelo’s Pieta. Since 1972, the Renaissance master’s statue has been sealed behind bullet-proof glass, put up after a man attacked it with a sledgehammer.

Technically, St. Peter’s has remained open during the Italian lockdown which began in early March, although only for private prayer. Only a few people have entered because of increased security.

On Monday, Pope Francis, who was last known to be in the basilica more than a month ago on Easter Sunday, is due to say a private Mass in a side chapel where St. John Paul II is buried to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the late pope’s birth.

The Vatican has not yet announced when the pope will say a Mass from the main altar before the public. His services since early March have been held in an empty church and streamed live on the internet or on television.

“I am very happy because preventing those who still have faith, who still believe in something, from praying is the worst thing you can do,” an Italian woman who gave only her first name as Stella said outside the basilica.

Public masses will resume in churches in Italy on Monday under strict conditions outlined in a protocol signed last week by Italy’s bishops conference and the government.

The Vatican has said that when St. Peter’s is open for Masses again, thermal scanners will be used to check the temperatures of those going inside.

It is still not clear when the basilica will be re-opened for tourists.

Additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Emily Roe; Editing by Mike Collett-White