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France eases Covid-19 lockdown: What you need to know

French police check motorists' outings authorisation on Paris's ring road on April 11, 2020, during the 26th day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
French police check motorists' outings authorisation on Paris's ring road on April 11, 2020, during the 26th day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. © Thomas Samson, AFP

On Monday, May 11, France begins a “gradual” easing of its Covid-19 lockdown measures. Here’s everything you need to know about the restrictions being lifted.

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After eight weeks in lockdown, France is set to enter a new phase on Monday, as the government begins a “very gradual process” of easing restrictions on movement, businesses and schools.

The partial reopening comes as more than 26,000 people have died of Covid-19 in France, while more than 22,000 people are still in hospital being treated for the virus. The number of patients in intensive care, like the number of hospitalisations overall, has been in steady decline for close to a month, but remains high at more than 2,800 – comparable to the figure in late March.

So is France really ready to reopen? From schools to cafés, parks to transportation, here’s what you need to know about the country’s plans for lifting Covid-19 restrictions.

Freedom of movement up to 100km

The starkest difference for French residents on Monday is that they will no longer have to fill out a form to leave the house. Trips of up to 100 kilometres from home (or within one’s département or district) will be allowed without justification, as will gatherings of up to 10 people. Longer trips will still be allowed only for work or for “compelling family reasons”, as justified by a signed form, said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

Outdoor activities, such as running, will no longer be subject to one-hour limits. Some beaches will even begin to reopen, as determined by local authorities.

Red and green zones

Guiding the government’s plans for easing the lockdown is the division of the country into two zones, green and red, based on health indicators.

“The country is cut in two, with the virus circulating more quickly in some regions,” said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Thursday at a press conference confirming the May 11 plans. “Some areas are still seeing an active circulation of the virus or a lot of pressure on hospitals. Those are classified as red areas.”

The red zone will comprise four regions making up the northeast of France (including Paris and its suburbs), as well as the Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte. Altogether, 32 of France’s 101 départements – home to 27 million people – will remain in the red.

For now, though, the government has imposed few additional restrictions on red areas, preferring to leave specifics to local authorities. For the week of May 11, parks and gardens are the only public places that will reopen in green zones but not red, unless otherwise specified by mayors or prefects. Travel between the two zones is allowed, as long as it respects the 100-kilometre limit. And primary schools in both zones will gradually begin to reopen, at local authorities’ discretion.

The gap between the two zones will widen on May 18, when middle schools in the green zone should begin to reopen, while those in the red won’t. At the beginning of June, the difference between the two zones is expected to grow further. At that point, Philippe said, high schools, bars, and restaurants in the green zone may be able to reopen, but not in départements still marked as red.

Transportation

As of Friday, France’s main transport operators have gradually begun restoring traffic to normal. National rail operator SNCF says that, by Monday, roughly one-third of high-speed trains will be running again, while regional lines will be operating at 40 to 50 percent (and slightly higher in the Paris region).

The Paris métro, bus and suburban rail lines operated by RATP will return to 75 percent of regular service, the agency said, with the city’s two automated métro lines running on regular schedules. Sixty of 302 métro stations will remain closed, however.

Moreover, passenger capacity will remain severely limited: in order to respect social-distancing rules, RATP wants to limit ridership to 15 percent of normal levels. Passengers at rush hour will be required to supply a certificate from their employer justifying their trip.

All passengers on public transport nationwide will also be required to wear a mask or risk a €135 fine. The government said that, starting Monday, it would be supplying 10 million masks to local transport operators to distribute to passengers, including 4.4 million for the Paris region.

Unions worry, however, that the capital’s transport agency doesn’t actually have sufficient means to monitor and limit ridership, and that plans to distribute hand sanitiser, masks, and other protective equipment to both workers and customers remain inadequate.

“There’s a rush [to reopen] that could be to the detriment” of Paris residents, Bertrand Hammache, secretary general of the CGT-RATP union, told France Info.

Bikes, bikes, bikes

Many in the capital are keen to avoid public transport anyway and are instead turning to cycling – a move that Paris and surrounding suburbs are seeking to accommodate and encourage by opening dozens of kilometres of temporary bike lanes.

Some temporary lanes are already in place, adding to the network of permanent cycle paths that has rapidly expanded under Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

A customer rides away from a bike shop in Paris on May 6,2020.
A customer rides away from a bike shop in Paris on May 6,2020. © AFP / FRANCE 24
Covid-19: Parisians turns to cycling as end of lockdown nears

Large portions of major streets, including the Rue de Rivoli, will also be closed to cars.

Pedestrians, too, will get a little more breathing room, as the city temporarily reduces parking on smaller streets to make more space for those on foot.

>> Paris to turn more streets over to bicycles as Covid-19 lockdown lifts

In addition to facilitating social distancing, Paris’s deputy mayor for transport, Christophe Najdovski, says he hopes the measures will prevent people from switching in large numbers from public transit to their cars. He said such a shift would be “neither viable, nor desirable” in the capital, which has long faced severe air pollution and congestion.

Education

Schools are one of the biggest flash points in the government’s reopening plans. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has affirmed that 80 to 85 percent of primary schools will reopen as soon as Tuesday, May 12, with roughly 1 million children set to return to school. This will mark the first step toward a full reopening of the education system.

The decision goes against the advice of the French government’s Scientific Council on the virus, which recommended that schools not reopen until September. In a late April poll, 6 in 10 respondents also said they opposed the reopening.

Catherine Da Silva, principal of a primary school in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis and spokesperson for the SNUipp 93 teachers’ union, said her school was “not at all” ready to reopen.

“We're doing something that’s abusive to kindergarteners,” she told France Info on Friday. She cited a lack of capacity for cleaning and the impossibility of imposing social-distancing rules on four- and five-year-olds.

The government insists that reopening schools is necessary, with Blanquer noting that “extremely significant social problems” have been exacerbated during the lockdown and underprivileged students disproportionately affected.

Parents will, however, have the option not to send their children back to school for now. And middle, high-school and university students will continue to stay home, with secondary education set to open more gradually over the coming weeks and months.

Businesses

For many, the most visible sign of a return to normal will be the reopening of most businesses. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Friday that “all businesses except cafés, bars and restaurants will reopen”.

In order to do so, businesses will need to follow safety guidelines outlined in a 20-page government document. The document sets out a variety of specific recommendations for maintaining social distance between workers and customers, including capacity restrictions and markings on the ground to indicate required distances.

The largest shops, including department stores and shopping centres, are negotiating with unions to establish specific protocols for reopening. For the time being, no large shopping malls will reopen in the Paris region.

Cultural establishments including theatres, cinemas and large museums will remain closed, but libraries will begin to reopen.

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In businesses where distancing is impossible, masks will be required along with goggles and/or visors. Hairdressers and barbers, who have seen a surge in appointments for the coming weeks, are taking additional precautions.

Meanwhile, the government has advised that those who are able to work remotely should continue to do so. This represents about one quarter of the French workforce, according to national labour statistics agency Dares. Roughly another quarter has continued to show up to their physical workplace throughout the lockdown.

International travel

France’s vast tourism industry will remain largely shuttered for now, with borders staying closed to non-European Union visitors until at least June 15, said Interior Minister Castaner. Cross-border travel will remain the “exception”, he said.

Any travellers who do enter France from outside the EU’s open-border Schengen area – whether citizens or foreigners – will face a mandatory two-week quarantine upon arrival. Those entering from EU countries or the United Kingdom will be exempt, although Health Minister Olivier Véran has suggested that France reserves the right to impose specific restrictions “if the epidemic situation were to get out of control in one of the Schengen countries”.

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