COVID confinement has sparked a new kind of business in Italy: cuddle shops!
They have sprung up after pandemic-triggered lockdowns showed that physical contact can never be taken for granted.
Professional, paid-for cuddlers are now offering their services, such as at Cuddle Place in the centre of the Italian capital Rome.
"The pandemic has allowed us to understand what really matters in life, whether that means being taken by the hand or simply a pat on the shoulder at the right time," Laura Nardini, the founder of Cuddle Place, told Euronews.
"Some of these gestures don’t come naturally anymore. Being able to find a place or someone that allows you to find peace of mind, is such an added value to our lives... That’s why the demand has increased," she added.
Sessions last from half an hour to one hour and the cost for the first 30 minutes is around €60.
Walter Tabbì is a regular customer at Cuddle Place. He started coming here from the start of the pandemic.
He told Euronews the practice is not just about relaxation, and that the “benefits are long-term".
"Being in a situation where you don’t have to do anything except listen to yourself and be present is very useful when it comes to focusing and goal setting," Tabbì said.
But given that the strictest national lockdowns have disappeared almost everywhere and life has almost gone back to normal, Euronews asked Sebastiano Maffettone, a professor in political philosophy at Rome's Luiss University, why people were still craving to be hugged.
It seems that for many the issue was simply wanting to be acknowledged.
"The need for affection was there already. The pandemic has made it an acute issue because people have had to self-isolate and today it has become chronic," Maffettone noted.
Italy was the first Western country to be hit by the virus and the first one to experiment with this type of business.
"Nobody would have ever thought this type of business would exist in Italy. But we were the first to face the emergency, and it has certainly pushed Italians to react and find solutions before others," the professor said.
Anxiety and depressive disorders are set to increase in the post-pandemic era, and this type of business is a reminder that containing the spread of the virus to get our lives back on track has had a significant toll on society and human relationships.
Watch the full video report in the player above.