COVID-19: France weighs mask return as hospital admissions rise

Nice, France –

Tourism is booming in France again – and so is COVID-19. French officials have “invited” or “recommended” people to return to using face masks, but have stopped renewing restrictions that would deter visitors or revive anti-government protests.

From commuters from Paris to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government’s light touch, while some worry that necessary preventive measures may be needed.

Virus-related hospitalizations rose rapidly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 per day, according to government data. Infections across Europe and the United States are also on the rise, but France has an exceptionally high number of people hospitalized, according to estimates from Our World in Data.

French government spokesman Olivia Gregoire has said there are no plans to reintroduce national regulations limiting or imposing conditions on indoor collection and other activities.

“The French are tired of the restrictions,” she told BFMTV on Wednesday. “We are convinced that people will behave responsibly.”

Last month’s French parliamentary elections saw President Emmanuel Macron lose his majority in the national legislature, while far-right and far-left parties that had protested his government’s previous vaccine and mask rules won seats.

After the prime minister this week recommended that people wear masks on public transport again, commuter Raphaelle Vertaldi said: “We have to tackle the virus, but we can’t stop living with it.”

Vertaldi, who boarded a train at Boussy-Saint-Antoine south of Paris, said she was against compulsory mask use but would cover her mouth and nose again if the government demanded it.

Hassani Mohammed, a postman in Paris, did not wait for the government’s decision. He masks himself for his daily commute. Now that his wife is recovering from surgery and two children at home, he does not want to risk contracting the corona virus for a third time.

“I realized that the pandemic is not a thing of the past,” Mohammed said.

Masks are controversial in France. At the beginning of the pandemic, the French government suggested that masks did not help. It eventually introduced some of Europe’s strictest restrictions, including a mandate for indoor/outdoor masks that lasted more than a year, along with strict lockdowns.

A court in Paris ruled on Tuesday that the French government had failed to stock enough surgical masks at the start of the pandemic and prevent the spread of the virus. The administrative court in Paris also ruled that the government wrongly suggested early on that masks did not protect people from contamination.

The government lifted most of the virus rules in April and foreign tourists have returned by land, sea and air to France’s Mediterranean beaches, restaurants and bars.

Meanwhile, French hospitals struggle with long-term staffing and funding shortages. Local officials are considering new measures, including a mandate for an indoor mask in some cities, but nothing that would curb economic activity.

French tourism professionals expect a thriving summer season despite the virus, with numbers that could even surpass pre-pandemic levels, as Americans take advantage of the weaker euro and others rediscover foreign travel after more than two years of a more limited existence.

A slow economic recovery started on the French Riviera last summer. But with gatherings still restricted, social distancing rules and travel restrictions in effect a year ago, most visitors to the area were French.

A guide and driver of an electric pedicab in Nice described her joy at seeing foreign visitors again. During the repeated lockdowns in France, she transported essential workers and took people to hospitals, to care for elderly relatives or for PCR tests.

Now, passengers on her bike from the US, Australia, Germany, Italy or abroad for the hand sanitizer stuck on the barrier between the passenger and driver’s seat. She said she still diligently disinfects the bike before every ride, “like it’s 2020”.

A retired couple from the UK visited France this week on their first trip abroad since the pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. They started with a cruise down the Rhone River – face masks were mandatory on the ship – and ended with a few days in the Mediterranean.

“It was delightful from start to finish,” said Ros Runcie, who was in Nice with her husband Gordon. “Everyone is so happy to see you, everyone is very polite and nice to visitors.”

Sue Baker, who was traveling with her husband, Phil, and the Runcies, commented, “It feels a lot like pre-2020.”

Asked about the possible return of French mask rules, Phil Baker said, “Masks are a bit uncomfortable, especially in the heat.”

But his wife added: “If it means we can still go on vacation, we’ll put them back on without hesitation.”

Le Deley reported from Boussy-Saint-Antoine, France.

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