PARIS: French cafes and restaurants reopened their doors on Tuesday (Jun 2) as the country took its latest step out of coronavirus lockdown, with clients seizing the chance to bask on sunny terraces after 10 weeks of closures to fight the outbreak.
At cafes across the country, servers and many customers were wearing face masks at tables kept at least one metre apart new under government regulations.
"I'm almost overwhelmed," Martine Depagniat, wearing a beige face mask and sunglasses, said at the Cafe de la Comedie in Paris, just across the street from the Louvre Museum where she works.
"I think people really need a return to normal, even though there's still a bit of nervousness," she said.
Although the daily number of COVID-19 deaths in France has fallen steadily, the government says contagion risks remain high in the Paris region, where only outdoor seating and takeout is allowed at restaurants, and dining rooms remain closed.
But in the rest of the country cafes and restaurants are fully open. Some even welcomed customers at the stroke of midnight to celebrate their newfound freedom under a further relaxation of lockdown rules.
'DOING EVERYDAY THINGS'
"We're leaving our confinement, to rediscover the pleasures and good times spent together," said Frederic de Boulois, president of a regional hotel association in Nantes, western France. He was speaking from the aptly named Prison du Bouffay, a restaurant that sits atop a former mediaeval dungeon.
At the Cafe de Flore, a Left Bank institution in the French capital, waiter Philippe Da Cruz wore a surgical mask over his black waistcoat and impeccably knotted tie as he chatted with clients.
"They're incredibly happy to be back, doing everyday things," he said. "The real deconfinement is now beginning."
The sentiment was shared by President Emmanuel Macron, who tweeted that "The reopening of cafes, hotels and restaurants marks the return of happy days!"
'GET EVERYONE WORKING'
The government credits its strict lockdown, which lasted from Mar 17 to May 11, with saving thousands of lives by relieving pressure on hospitals, but it is eager to restart an economy devastated by the measures.
The daily death tolls have steadied while the numbers in intensive care have fallen sharply. On Monday, 107 new coronavirus deaths were reported, bringing the total toll for France to 28,940.
READ: Global COVID-19 deaths reach 375,000 as Latin America struggles
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday that the economy could shrink 11 per cent this year, worse than the eight per cent expected just a few weeks ago. The recession could force numerous companies into bankruptcy.
"Get everyone working and try to limit a jobless rate that is going to rise: That is what's at stake for France in the coming months," he told RTL radio - before heading out for a coffee at a restaurant near the Place de la Bastille in Paris.
In the capital, officials have closed off several streets so that bars and restaurants can install more outdoor seating, and are allowing owners to spread out more on sidewalks and even in parking spaces.
"We're hoping the weather will stay good, because all we have are the terraces," said Petro Jaupi, owner of the Auberge de la Butte in the picturesque Butte aux Cailles neighbourhood of Paris.
"We also hope that clients will be confident enough to come back," he said.
RELIEF FOR TOURISM SECTOR
Parks and beaches reopened over the weekend, and more classes in primary and middle schools are now welcoming students countrywide, as well as high schools in the so-called "green zones" were the outbreak has been contained.
Class sizes have been limited to just 15 students, however, meaning thousands of children still have to work from home.
Public gatherings of more than 10 people remain banned until Jun 21, and people still have to wear masks in public transport and in the vast majority of stores.
But as of Tuesday, people are also allowed to travel more than 100 kilometres from home, prompting a collective sigh of relief from the tourism sector.
Officials have also announced that care homes, which have suffered heavy COVID-19 tolls, will again be allowed to receive visitors later this week, including young children.
France's StopCovid mobile app, a voluntary system designed to alert users if they have been in close proximity of someone who has tested positive for the virus, was made available on Tuesday.