France prepares to ease Covid-19 restrictions, but new cases warn socialising will have to wait
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On 11 May, the French government will begin relaxing the restrictions on public movement, businesses and schools imposed eight weeks ago. But people infected with the virus in the relatively unaffected area of Dordogne after attending a family gathering shows we still have to stay apart.
More than 26,000 people have died of Covid-19 in France, making it one of the worst-hit countries in Europe. But the overall trend is now downward.
On Saturday French officials said the day's death toll of 80 was the lowest since early April.
And while 2,800 people remain in intensive care units, fatalities in nursing homes have also fallen sharply.
But if the numbers are to be kept in check, the French will have to keep their distance.
The example of Dordogne in south-western France, where 12 new cases have been detected, highlights the risks of social gatherings.
Authorities believe the virus spread when dozens of people gathered together after a funeral.
Though 20 people attended the funeral service itself, as is allowed, many more met afterwards at the family’s home in breach of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Like much of the south-western of France, Dordogne has been largely free of the epidemic. But the small outbreak is a reminder of how easy the virus spreads.
Prefect Frédéric Périssat denounced the breach of restrictions on BFM television. He said: "This really is an illustration of what we don’t want to see in the weeks to come.”
So what will we see with the easing of lockdown?
Nationwide, people will be allowed to move around, up to a distance of 100km, and will no longer have to fill out a form to leave the house.
Longer trips will still require a signed form testifying you have a “compelling family reason”.
Gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed. People will be able to do outdoor activities for more than an hour and some beaches could reopen depending on the local authorities.
Variations depending on “red” or “green” zones
The easing of lockdown will vary a good deal depending on whether you are in a low-risk (green) or high-risk (red) zone.
Red indicates the virus is circulating more quickly, putting pressure on hospitals.
Paris, the Ile de France region, the east of France and the Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte are all in the red zone. The rest of the country is green and people there will once more be able to enjoy public parks and gardens as from Monday.
Primary schools in both zones will start to reopen on 11 May, but with limited numbers of pupils, and at the local authorities’ discretion.
A week later, on 18 May, middle schools are expected to reopen in green zones, but not in red.
High schools, bars and restaurants in green zones may be allowed to reopen in early June, but again the red zone will have to wait.
Getting around on public transport
SNCF, the National rail operator, says it expects around one-third of its high-speed trains to be up and running on Monday and between 40 to 50 percent of its regional lines.
Around three quarters of the Paris metro, bus and suburban rail lines (RATP) should be running, with the two automated metro lines (lines 14 and 1) running as normal. 60 of the 302 metro stations will remain closed.
Passenger numbers will be limited so that physical distancing rules can be respected. People travelling at peak times will have to carry a certificate from their employer justifying their trip.
Everyone taking public transport will have to wear a mask, or risk the €135 fine. The government is providing transport operators with some 10 million masks to distribute to passengers.
On your bike
Concerns about health risks as a result of over-crowding on public transport may lead to people switching to their cars to get to work.
Paris city hall, which is keen to discourage vehicles and develop cycling as a mode of transport, has opened some 50km of temporary bike lanes.
Some major routes, such as rue de Rivoli near Paris City Hall, will be closed to vehicles.
Back to school
The reopening schools remains a contentious issue in France.
While education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer says 80 to 85 percent of primary schools will reopen as soon as 12 May, allowing around one million children to return to school, the government’s own Scientific Council recommends schools should not open until September.
Opinion polls also show a majority of French are not in favour of schools reopening this week, and some teacher unions say schools are not yet ready to ensure social distancing rules are respected.
The decision whether or not to send children to school will be left up to parents.
For the moment middle, high school and university students will remain at home with classes provided online.
Back to business?
Most businesses are set to reopen this week, apart from cafés, bars, restaurants, hotels and discotheques.
For the moment no large department stores and shopping centres will open in the Paris region while special protocols are negotiated with unions.
Libraries and bookshops will begin reopening, but theatres, cinemas and large museums remain closed.
In businesses where social distancing is impossible, such as hairdressers, staff will be required to wear masks and goggles.
The government is encouraging employees who have been working from home to continue doing so.
Tourism and travel
Borders will remain closed to non-European visitors until at least 15 June.
France’s tourism industry will remain largely shuttered for the moment. Economy minister Bruno Le Maire has said a decision on when to reopen hotels, restaurants and bars would be announced at the end of May.
Travellers entering France from outside the EU will have to go into quarantine for two weeks.
People entering from EU countries or the UK will be exempt for the moment although France’s health minister Olivier Véran has warned this could change if the “epidemic situation were to get out of control in one of the Schengen countries”.
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