Beachside bliss as Paris Plages kicks off in the French capital alongside pop-up Covid testing
Revellers at this year’s Paris Plages, which opened on the weekend, will get to choose from the many usual amusements that draw tens of thousands to two locations in the capital each summer along with an added attraction not seen before – Covid-19 testing hubs.
Having launched in 2002, every summer now Paris transforms part of the banks of the Seine and the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement into a beachgoer’s paradise with its very own artificial beaches: Paris Plages. In many ways, it marks the start of the city’s summer festivities.
This year, like every other, there are all kinds of activities (although with some Covid-necessitating restrictions) spread over both sites, including: fencing, open-air gyms, concerts, swimming, paddle boats, pétanque (boules), and food and drink stalls that promise respite for those Parisians unable to escape the city’s sweltering heat.
Then there's a floating open-air cinema that will appeal to film buffs who can hop on one of 38 electric boats each seating up to six people from the same social circle.
Emerging from one of the riverside man-made swimming pools at the Bassin, a young boy tells FRANCE 24 why Paris Plages holds such appeal: “There’s no swimming pool in my town, so it feels good to enjoy this and a quiet beach here.”
But at a time when the City of Light often boasts more tourists than residents, this year’s event is certain to draw fewer crowds, coupled with a more subdued ambience due to the Covid-19 health crisis.
Early indicators suggest that the French capital is one of several regions in the country where the virus could see a resurgence, which is why authorities are pushing an aggressive testing policy to stave off new infections.
Nestled among the playground of sandy banks, parasols, sun lounges and palm trees, are two pop-up testing hubs – one on the banks of the river the other at the Bassin de la Villette – where medical teams have the capacity to carry out between 150-200 serological and standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) Covid tests per day.
"At Paris Plages people have got the time and they really want to know whether they have been sick ... and there are those who need a certificate to travel on some airlines to go on holiday," Muriel Prudhomme, a doctor and deputy at the city hall's health department, told Reuters as a steady stream of people of all ages came to be tested.
"I'm taking all necessary precautions, but there are so many people that don't seem to care," pensioner Nicole Gressier told Reuters. "I'm going to see my granddaughter who I haven't seen for nine months, so when I was strolling here I saw it was possible to be tested, so why not?"
Many missing masks
It’s all part of a ‘new normal’ defining day-to-day life in a city still finding its feet after emerging from an economically crippling virus lockdown in early May.
More than 30,000 people in France have died from the virus.
While it has so far been contained with fatalities and the number of people in intensive care falling, daily cases have risen ahead of the summer holiday season as people congregate in larger groups and travellers come to and from France without specific quarantine measures.
On his way to Pont-Marie (a Paris bridge which links the Seine to the Île Saint-Louis) to catch one of the Paris Plages concerts, is Bruno, accompanied by his 8-year-old daughter. "We made up our minds this morning at the last minute, but we thought it would be nice to start the day with a classical music concert by the water's edge,” he told AFP.
"It's great for Parisians and tourists that it's opening this year despite the health crisis," the 55-year-old from Val de Marne said, but he lamented that so "few people are wearing masks”.
New restrictions, which come into effect in France on Monday, will enforce mask-wearing in enclosed public places, as concerns grow of a possible second wave of the virus.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex, who announced the new rule last week, cautioned that France would be monitoring events in Spain, which has seen a recent rise in new cases.
On Sunday, local authorities in Barcelona imposed a second lockdown forcing its 4 million residents indoors with the closure of cinemas, theatres, nightclubs, some shops and other public entertainment spots. The new restrictions have snuffed out hopes that the summer influx of tourists would help resuscitate Spain’s flagging economy.
Fewer numbers at Paris Plages also reflect the huge downturn affecting France’s tourism sector. Up to 10 percent of the country’s annual GDP comes from tourism, with more than 30 million tourists visiting Paris each year.
'This is what will make us all stronger'
Amid the health crisis and the need for social distancing, there had been some doubt over whether this year’s Paris Plages would go ahead.
But as she strolled along the riverside to inaugurate the opening on Saturday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo told FRANCE 24 that with so few foreign tourists and with many Parisians unlikely to go on holiday this summer it was important for the city to show its resilience. “As always in difficult times we have to stick together,” said Hidalgo.
“We have to be present to also take in moments of happiness and pleasure... not in the immediacy of tomorrow – that’s going to be difficult, but I think this is what will make us all stronger so that we’re still able to enjoy our city,” said the Mayor.
Paris Plages is open until 30 August 2020.
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