Travel Agent's Paris correspondent Richard Nahem has the latest on the City of Light as it exits its COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown.
In March 2020, the Parisian lifestyle I have embraced and cherished since moving here in 2005 came to a grinding, unexpected halt. COVID-19 gob-smacked the nation with its arrival and the swift rise in infections put France third on the list of the highest number of cases in the world after China and Italy.
On March 12 on national television, president Emmanuel Macron soberly announced the lockdown rules that would go into effect on March 16, preparing the nation with an unprecedented plan to restrict its citizens’ daily movement. Restaurants, cafés, bars, schools and universities, museums, movie theaters, opera houses, concert halls and venues, and sports events were shuttered until further notice. Only shops that offered essential services and merchandise—such as food shops, supermarkets, tobacco shops, pharmacies, gas stations and newsstands—were able to stay open, as long as they enforced social distancing and customers wore masks. Public transport, buses and metros, were still in service but with very limited service. Citizens had to fill out a mandatory form to leave their homes, and sign it, declaring they would only go out for the following reasons: To go to work (if their job demanded a physical appearance); to take care of others who needed assistance; to buy essential goods; or brief exercise. The borders of France were closed, so visitors from outside of the country, except French citizens returning from abroad, were not allowed to enter.
A few weeks later, more restrictions were administered, as the number of cases spiraled upward. Now, you weren’t allowed to travel more than one kilometer from your residence and the hours for going out for exercise were now curtailed between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Fines for not following the lockdown rules that had started at €35 had, now, escalated to €135 if you were caught.
I live on one of the busiest traffic streets in Paris and, suddenly, all was quiet. There were no horns blaring, almost no cars and buses passing by, and pedestrians were now a thing of the past. Sometimes it’s the small things you take for granted that become important; the familiar sight of café chairs lining the sidewalks was gone, along with people lingering over coffee. It was almost springtime when the lockdown started, and we had a warm and sunny March and April; usually with the first signs of spring, Parisians come out of hibernation in droves and head to parks and gardens. Now, even the parks and gardens were under lock and key, and the sight and sounds of children running and playing was gone.
Finally, on May 11, after case numbers started to fall, Phase 1 of the lockdown lifting took effect. Cautiously, the country and Paris started to reopen on a small scale. Most shops were able to open but restaurants, cafés and bars still remained closed. Travel restrictions were now relaxed, and people were allowed to travel up to 100 kilometers from home.
From June 2 to June 21, the second stage of the lockdown-lifting commenced. Restaurants and cafés were allowed to reopen, but could only serve outdoors, with tables distanced at least three feet apart. In the final stages of the lockdown-lifting, cinemas, museums and gyms have reopened but with new rules and limited attendance.
Now, walking the streets of my neighborhood, life seems to have returned to normal but upon closer inspection, there are noticeable changes. Cafés are once again open, but instead of people huddling next to one another, the tables are set further apart. People are wearing masks. At small shops, customers now patiently queue outdoors, while the shopkeepers only allow two or three customers at a time to enter. The seats on the metro are clearly marked so people don’t sit next to one another.
The most glaring sign that things were not necessarily back to normal was the absence of tourists. Gone are the double decker, hop-on, hop-off tour buses frequenting the narrow bus lanes, people taking selfies in front of the monuments, zig-zagging lines to enter the Louvre, the sound of English being spoken more than French in certain places, the velvet ropes before you enter the Louis Vuitton flagship store on the Champs Elysees and, finally, the people packed like sardines in the elevators going up to the Eiffel Tower.
Luckily, or perhaps because of the initial lockdown strategy, France is one of the few nations to avoid a second wave of infections that many other countries have experienced after they have reopened.
I remain cautiously optimistic that France is mostly rid of coronavirus and that there won’t be a second wave of infections; however, I am still wearing my mask whenever I leave the house and try to physically distance as best as I can.
As Paris enters into an unknown territory about its future, it’s comforting to know that Parisians are creatures of habit and they continue to carry fresh baked baguettes under their arm, carouse at cafés for hours on end, religiously take their vacation in August and shop daily at their local food shops, among other things.