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France's café culture: will easing of lockdown bring back the crowds ?

Chairs outside a restaurant in the Grande Place in Lille, 11 May 2020.
Chairs outside a restaurant in the Grande Place in Lille, 11 May 2020. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
3 min

Restaurants, cafés and bars around France are preparing to re-open, as the second phase of easing lockdown comes into play. But under what conditions? Much will depend on the announcement expected by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Thursday afternoon.

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The strict stay-at-home orders in place to curb the spread of coronavirus were partially lifted on May 11, allowing shops and services to resume business, but this excluded restaurants, cafés, bars and nightclubs.

Restaurants, bars and cafes in so-called 'green' zones with limited Covid-19 cases are expected to re-open on 2 June, while those in "red" zones including Paris and much of the northeast may have to wait until July, a government source said.

Many restaurants and cafés turned to take-away services during lockdown, and may continue to do so in the future, as life slowly returns to normal.

The government has recognised the economic hardship faced by the sector and has promised financial aid by way of cancelling or delaying the social contributions linked to the period of closure as well as solidarity funds.

But there's no doubt that the lockdown in the restaurant and tourism sectors is a blow to the French economy.

Earlier this week, the Insee national statistics agency said the French economy is on course to shrink by 20% in the second quarter from the previous three months, marking a sharp deterioration in the country’s recession.

How are restaurants preparing?

Although the rules have not yet been outlined in detail, many restaurant owners are preparing for strict hygiene measures to be announced, and have begun preparing accordingly.

The need for social distancing of at least a metre between people is in many cases a challenge for restaurants, especially small ones.

Some have taken up the idea of installing plexi-glass between diners to isolate them from other tables.

Others have designated one door for arrivals and another for exits.

The race to find innovative solutions in restaurants and shops has begun in many countries around the world, as lockdown measures are eased.

In Nantes, one city in a green zone, the owner of the Bar du Marché in the town centre told France 3 regional Television that he will make the most of the terrace area in front of his restaurant to attract clients, and keep them well spaced apart.

In fact, the town hall in Nantes has just agreed to waiver fees normally imposed on restaurants and cafés for extra outdoor seating areas, in light of the current crisis.

However, he says he doesn't expect a full house anytime soon, partly because much of his clientele switched to working from home during the confinement and continues to do so.

Customers to pay more

He points out that he will hardly be able to recuperate his operating costs, seeing as owners like himself have had to invest in buying gels, gloves, masks and other protective gear in order to face the public, a cost he says will probably have an impact on the customer's bill.

Eddy, in a restaurant across the street says he won't be able to place more than ten people together at any one time and has piled up unused furniture in the next room.

He also hopes customers will be patient as his staff will have to clean tables and chairs between each service.

Flashcode menus

Elsewhere in town, Nicolas, another restaurant owner says he's put in place wine menus with a flash code, so as to avoid having to wipe down plastic menus all day.

He has also decided for his menu to keep it simple with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce.

Many chefs across France have seen the crisis as a way to get back to essentials and focus on quality food and supporting local products.

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