‘Back where we belong’: Parisians bask in sun as cafés reopen after Covid-19 lockdown
Carving out precious space along the pavement, the French capital’s cherished cafés finally opened their sun-soaked terraces to the public on Tuesday after almost three months on lockdown. But with stringent Covid-19 restrictions still in place, many establishments say they’re opening for the statement rather than the business.
Achour Abdelguerfi cuts a lonely figure behind his wood and marble bar at L’Entrepot’s, a popular brasserie on the slopes of Ménilmontant in eastern Paris. One needs to step a little closer to see the broad smile hiding behind the plastic visor that covers his face, ostensibly shielding him and his customers from the threat of Covid-19.
“It feels a little odd standing at the bar without my usual customers,” he says, operating the coffee machine that has sat idle for eleven weeks. “But we’re open at last. It’s great to see them out on the terrace.”
L’Entrepot’s is your classic bistro kabyle*: friendly, efficient and reasonably priced, a magnet for early workers and evening revellers alike. Like other eateries across France, it was forced to shut down in mid-March, when the government ordered a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That ban has finally been lifted as of June 2, allowing bars, cafés and restaurants across France to reopen. However, those in the Paris region – designated an “orange zone” where the virus still poses a greater threat – can only seat customers in outdoor terraces, assuming they have one.
Ahead of the long-awaited reopening, Abdelguerfi was as nervous as a young pupil on the first day of school. But the anxiety soon evaporated as the familiar faces of local customers arrived one by one.
“After all that time under lockdown, and with the virus still around, I was scared people wouldn’t show up – but they’re all here,” he says. “In fact, now I’m worried I won’t have enough food for all of them.”
Out on the vastly expanded terrace, regular customers Paule and Nathalie poke fun at the staff’s clumsy visors while enjoying an early morning coffee in the first rays of sunshine. They’re normally the standing-at-the-counter type, engaging with the bartenders and whoever is propping up the bar while glancing at the local daily, Le Parisien. But for the time being, a spot in the sun is more than welcome.
“It feels strange being out here,” says Paule, looking a little awkward on her too-comfortable seat. “But we really can’t complain: It’s sunny and we’re back where we belong.”
There’s certainly been no shortage of sunshine. The French capital has been blessed with a record 37 days of “abundant sunshine” this spring, according to Météo France, eclipsing the previous record of 28 days set in 1976 and 2011.
As Abdelguerfi puts it, “We can only hope the sun keeps on shining.”
‘Soul of the city’
In France’s densely populated capital, cafés, bistros and brasseries have long been an integral part of life – an extension of home, allowing people to escape the confines of often cramped apartments. The relief is all the more palpable after weeks of confinement.
Over on the left bank of Paris, historian Laure Léveillé has found a spot at the café Le Mêlécasse in the Butte-aux-Cailles, an area popular with students. Parisian coffeehouses have been a second home for her ever since she wrote her thesis shuffling between bistros.
“As a single woman with no children, I find that cafés are particularly important to my social life,” she says. “I come alone and always find someone I’ve met here before.”
On the nearby Place d'Italie, Nouhed has sat down for a drink with his friends Louis and Salah at their favourite drinking hole. It's their first trip to the Café O'Jules in months and the trio already plan to return in the evening.
“We've really missed coming here, terraces are part of Paris life,” says Nouhed, sipping his freshly squeezed orange juice. "We'll come back every day, at least for this week,” adds Louis.
In the days of Covid-19, returning to cafés and restaurants is not just a cherished habit, but an act of civic duty too. At least that’s how Paris officials have put it.
For all their iconic status, French cafés are closing in droves. They have dwindled from 200,000 in 1960 to around 40,000 today, half of them in the Paris area. According to industry statistics, two cafés go out of business every day – an alarming rate that is likely to accelerate after months of lockdown and with a deep recession looming.
To ease the situation for restaurateurs, Paris authorities have allowed establishments to eke out space along the sidewalks until September. The city also plans to temporarily close streets in tourist hotspots to give them extra space, including in the Marais area and Montmartre.
To ensure that the local residents can still get peace and quiet, establishments have to fulfil a 10-point charter displayed in their windows, including provisions to keep customers a metre apart and allow pedestrians to pass freely. This being Paris, the 10 points include a “pledge to use (...) aesthetically pleasing furniture”.
“We have to stand in solidarity with our restaurants and bars,” Mayor Anne Hidalgo told Le Parisien on Sunday, stressing that hundreds of jobs are at stake. “They are the soul of our city.”
‘Not for the money’
Judging by Tuesday’s evidence, the call has been heeded far and wide.
At the Palissade, a trendy bistro in the Sainte-Marthe area near the popular Canal-Saint-Martin, owner Marzena Leska is busy serving coffees to the many unexpected customers who showed up the minute she lifted her shutter.
“I was planning to open tomorrow,” she explains. “I was only taking pictures of the terrace to check it complies with the city hall’s guidelines, but the whole neighbourhood showed up. It’s been such a long wait, people were desperate for their cafés to reopen.”
The Palissade now encroaches on the pavement to maximise the number of tables Leska can set. She has submitted the new configuration to the local authorities, who will be inspecting café layouts in the days ahead. Already, she is concerned that very few of her customers are wearing face masks.
Like many other business owners, Leska doesn’t think she’ll make any money in the coming weeks, not while Covid-19 restrictions are in place. However much she expands her terrace, it simply won’t make up for the dozens of tables lost inside.
Faced with a similar quandary, Moura Chalabi, who runs a pizzeria in the Jourdain area, in north-east Paris, says he is opening “not for the money, but just to keep things going”.
“It’s good that the city hall will give us a little more room on the pavement, I can add an extra five tables that way,” Chalabi says. “But I still lose thirty tables inside, there’s no way this will be profitable.”
For the owner of Il Posto, the coming weeks will be primarily about reestablishing links with customers and the neighbourhood.
“It was important for my Italian staff to reopen. They’ve been badly affected by the health emergency back home and really needed to get started again,” he says. “Above all, we’re opening for the statement: To say, 'We’re here' and to put all this sadness behind us.”
* Many of the most popular bars in north-east Paris have been run since the 1960s by immigrant families from the Berber region of Kabylie in Algeria.
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