'A little unreal': Wary French venture out as lockdown eases
May 11, 2020
French sidewalks came to life Monday and roads filled with traffic for the first time in two months as officials began lifting the coronavirus lockdown, though daily life looked very different for those returning cautiously to shops and offices.
"I'm a little stressed out," Fatma Chouria, a daycare centre cook, told AFP at the Gare Saint-Lazare railway and metro station in Paris.
"I'm happy to be going back to work, but we're not in a rush, we're trying to stay calm and crossing our fingers," she said from behind a face mask, now compulsory on public transport across France.
Others avoided mass transit and the roads bustled with drivers and cyclists taking advantage of new dedicated lanes in many cities to encourage bike use.
"It's true that we're a little nervous about public transport, so I prefer to take my bike, even though the weather isn't helping," said David, riding under stormy skies in Paris.
Hairdressers, stationery shops and other businesses reopened after an eight-week shutdown that took a heavy economic toll but is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives by braking the spread of the coronavirus.
But it was hardly business as usual.
Masks were everywhere and floors marked with tape indicated the safe social distance between people, including spots showing where to stand on trains and buses, with roughly half of seats marked as off-limits.
Many stores have arrows on the floor showing one-way itineraries for clients, and larger retailers posted security guards to limit the number of people allowed inside.
"I've been waiting for a while now," Maureen, 21, said outside a Zara fashion store in Marseille, southern France.
"I've missed shopping -- I don't need anything in particular, I'll just buy if I see something I like," she said.
'Only two sales'
France's Liberation newspaper summed up the wary mood with the headline "De-confinement: Back to Abnormal" over a red-and-green front page illustrating the country's split into safe regions and those -- including Paris -- where COVID-19 risks remain too high to lift the lockdown completely.
In office buildings, employees who cannot work from home are now kept far apart from colleagues, bottles of hand sanitiser are everywhere, with doors propped open so people do not have to touch them.
Amid the skyscrapers at the La Defense business district west of Paris, resident Marie-France Navarro said she had expected the usual pre-crisis crush of commuters, but instead there were just a handful of people.
"I'm really surprised there's nobody here, it's really strange, this is a business district after all," said Navarro. "It feels like the lockdown is still under way."
Cafes, bars, restaurants and cinemas remain closed nationwide, and gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.
Markets can start reopening this week, but grocery stores and other businesses must strictly limit how many clients can be inside at once.
On Paris' usually buzzing Champs-Elyseesa handful of clients waited outside a Sephora cosmetics store shortly before opening.
"It's a little unreal, everyone is wearing masks, it's really strange," said one young woman, Irina.
Farther up the avenue, sales people at Chanel swiped counters with disinfectant wipes, their white masks contrasting their chic black pantsuits.
"The recovery is going to be very gradual," said Edouard Lefebvre of the Champs-Elysees business alliance, noting tourists usually make up a third of store traffic.
At one central Paris shoe store, doors were open but hopes of a surge in business were dim.
"Since this morning we've had a few people come in, look around, but so far we've made only two sales," said Alexandre, the manager, wearing a mask and gloves.
At primary schools, where youngsters will return in staggered openings, teachers separated desks and taped up posters explaining strict new social distancing protocols that will apply when doors reopen later this week.
"You shouldn't think this is going to be 'back to school'," said Sarah Rodriguez, a principal in one Paris school.
"There are so many sanitary constraints -- no games, no recess, the distances -- that I don't really know how teachers are going to manage," she said.
On the banks of the Seine river, teenagers Iris and Paul, their high school not yet reopened, embrace.
"It's the first time in two months that we see each other," said the young man.
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