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France's Louvre and Palace of Versailles shut by coronavirus

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Paris (AFP)

The Louvre in Paris, the world's most visited museum, said Friday that it was closing "until further notice" because of the coronavirus.

The closure of the museum, which had 9.6 million visitors last year, came after the French government banned all gatherings of over 100 people to limit the spread of the virus.

The Palace of Versailles -- France's other big tourist attraction with nearly 10 million tourists a year -- swiftly followed suit.

The Louvre had restricted entry to 1,000 people at a time on Monday as the number of cases in France began to rise.

In a sign that the shutdown could be relatively long-lasting, the museum said it was also postponing two upcoming exhibitions, including a show on Italian sculpture from Donatello to Michelangelo which was not due to open until May.

The Musee d'Orsay in Paris, which holds the world's biggest collection of Impressionist paintings, is expected to follow the Louvre's lead later Friday.

A string of other museums said they too were closing their doors after the French culture ministry ordered state institutions to shut or to severely restrict entry Friday.

Public theatres, libraries and concert halls were also told to close.

France's Culture Franck Riester is quarantined at his home after testing positive for the virus earlier this week.

- Fears of long shutdown -

The prospect of a long shutdown has left theatres and concert halls in Paris staring into the financial abyss.

The entertainment industry across France -- but particularly in the capital -- had already been reeling from a six-week transport strike over pension reforms earlier this year, which has left the Paris Opera alone facing loses of 16.4 million $18 million) euros.

Impressario Jean-Marc Dumontet, who owns several Paris theatres, told AFP that the shutdown was a devastating double blow.

"Some of my staff are in tears," he said. "It's a knock-out blow. Projects are having to be abandoned," adding that all shows opening between now and August are threatened.

"It's extremely sad and really shocking."

The Paris Opera has pulled 34 operas, ballets and concerts at its two opera houses in the French capital, with only shows after April 24 still due to go ahead for now.

All rehearsals have also been cancelled.

"We have still enough money to meet our obligations," said the opera's CEO Martin Ajdari, but he warned that "anything that will follow this difficult period will be complicated".

The Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay had restricted entry to both museums to 1,000 people earlier this week, with the Louvre forcing visitors to book online.

But with the death toll in France reaching 61 on Friday, and the government closing schools and creches, the museums were forced to take a more radical approach.

The Louvre closed for two days last week when staff refused to work over health fears.

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