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France makes public mask-wearing compulsory indoors

French Prime Minister Jean Castex says indoor mask-wearing is an effective method of preventing coronavirus infection
French Prime Minister Jean Castex says indoor mask-wearing is an effective method of preventing coronavirus infection Bertrand GUAY AFP
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Paris (AFP)

France will make the wearing of face masks compulsory in indoor public places from next week, the government said Thursday as it noted "signs" of an uptick in the coronavirus outbreak.

Already obligatory gear on trains, metros and buses, masks will now also become mandatory in shops, supermarkets and other enclosed spaces frequented by the public, Prime Minister Jean Castex said in the Senate.

"The wearing of a mask, along with barrier measures (such as social distancing and regular handwashing) is an effective method of prevention and protection," he said.

The announcement came as Health Minister Olivier Veran noted signs of a "resurgence" in the coronavirus epidemic that has claimed 30,120 lives in France to date.

Constant "vigilance" was required by all, he told MPs, "at a time when a certain number of indicators seem to show that there are signs of a resurgence" of the virus.

Veran earlier told public radio that: "We are witnessing in certain hospitals in Paris weak signs of an epidemic resurgence, which is why I urge the French to remain particularly vigilant, active, against the virus."

An outbreak hotspot has been reported in Mayenne, northern France, where indoor mask-wearing became compulsory with immediate effect already on Thursday.

According to the latest official data, released Wednesday, France had 133 new coronavirus patients hospitalised in 24 hours, and 17 more people in intensive care, for a total of 482.

This was down from a high of 4,281 people hospitalised in one day in April, and more than 7,100 people in intensive care at the height of the epidemic.

- 'Special attention' -

Veran said an uptick in hospital admissions and telephone calls to emergency services were among the indicators of a possible epidemic upturn that required "special attention".

One of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, France has all but emerged from a weeks-long countrywide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, which had placed immense pressure on its hospital system.

While the stay-at-home orders helped flatten the infection curve, it caused what Castex described Thursday as "the most severe recession since the creation of the national accounts".

France's economic contraction for 2020 is predicted to be about 11 percent, he said.

While most businesses in France have reopened, some group activities remain restricted.

The government of France, like many other countries, counselled against mask-wearing at the start of the epidemic, urging members of the public to reserve limited masks for healthcare workers.

Since a partial lifting of lockdown on May 11, mask-wearing is obligatory on public transport -- failure to do so is punishable with a fine -- and required for entry into facilities such as the Louvre Museum, Disneyland Paris and the Eiffel Tower.

France has embarked on a mask production campaign, and on Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron said face coverings should become compulsory in public places with effect from August 1, as he noted "indications that (the outbreak) is accelerating a bit."

- No decree needed -

Castex said Thursday that an August 1 start date appeared "late" to many, and announced a decree on indoor mask-wearing "will enter into force next week."

Regarding mask-wearing in office buildings, the premier said employers will have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

The government will now draw up a list of what constitutes indoor public places, and possible sanctions for non-compliance.

Veran said the text should be ready by Monday or Tuesday next week, but stressed that "vigilance... does not require a decree".

"I encourage and I invite all French people, without delay, without waiting for the publication of the decree or without the obligation having to be carved into marble, to wear a mask in all indoor spaces, even more so when they are in groups," he said.

The overseas department of French Polynesia, where the virus is no longer circulating after 62 cases were recorded in total, reopened to tourists on Wednesday after four months in lockdown.

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