PARIS (Reuters) – At lunchtime in a busy Paris restaurant area, hundreds of people are soaking up the sun, eating, chatting and smoking on cafe terraces and adamant that the coronavirus will not get in the way of their lives.
Even though Italy has gone into lockdown and neighboring Belgium and Spain have closed bars and cafes, the French government has kept cafes – and their vibrant social life – open, just asking people to keep a safe distance between tables.
In a televised address to the nation on Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron announced school closures and urged people to avoid close contact for fear of spreading the virus that has killed 61 people in France and infected almost 3,000.
On Friday, there was little sign the message had been heard.
“It’s a stressful atmosphere to talk about closing everything and staying at home. We need to be careful and stay in contact. It’s important in life,” said Alexandra Baronnet, a manager in a large business.
“I’m worried by the idea of not being able to go to the cinema, restaurant or theater, or even seeing my friends. It’s essential.”
Italy, the country with the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, decided to close its bars, restaurants and other entertainment activities only after the number of cases spiraled and hospitals struggled to cope.
Young French executive Clemence Guillern’s company has recommended employees work from home from Monday. Having lunch with her colleagues, she is not too phased by the latest developments.
“We’re going to take advantage of this moment among colleagues to have lunch together, but from Monday we’ll be working from home,” she said.
She feels the measures announced by Macron were aimed more at stopping the elderly getting sick than at her generation.
“We are going to try to be more careful, but continuing to have a social life is important,” she said.
But the measures against the spread of coronavirus are having an impact. Not only have sports and other events been postponed but the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, said on Friday it was closing until further notice.
Michel Gomes, who runs the Cafe du Centre near the heart of Paris, looks on worriedly despite what looks like solid lunchtime numbers.
With business down 30 percent since the start of the month, he cannot predict how long the situation will last and fears working hours will be restricted.
But the immediate challenge is getting customers to follow the national health guidelines, including keeping tables apart.
It is not easy.
“We aren’t going to tell them to sit a meter apart because it will make them even more scared. If they want to sit together, that’s their choice,” he said.
Fearing forced closures as the virus spreads, he said: “We fear that we’re going to follow the Italian path.”
Writing by John Irish, Editing by Timothy Heritage