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With COVID-19 hospitalisations up, France weighs return to masks

Published:Sunday | July 3, 2022 | 12:07 AM
People wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 ride a subway in Paris, France, last Thursday, June 30.
People wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 ride a subway in Paris, France, last Thursday, June 30.

NICE, France (AP):

Tourism is booming again in France – and so is COVID-19.

French officials have "invited" or "recommended" people to go back to using face masks, but stopped short of renewing restrictions that would scare visitors away or revive anti-government protests.

From Paris commuters to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government's light touch, while some worry that required prevention measures may be needed.

Virus-related hospitalisations rose quickly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients with COVID-19 hospitalised per day, according to government data. Infections are also rising across Europe and the United States, but France has an exceptionally high proportion of people in the hospital, according to Our World in Data estimates.

French government spokesperson Olivia Gregoire has said there are no plans to reintroduce national regulations that limit or set conditions for gathering indoors and other activities.

"The French people are sick of restrictions," she said Wednesday on channel BFMTV. "We are confident that people will behave responsibly."

France's parliamentary elections last month resulted in President Emmanuel Macron losing his majority in the national legislature, while parties on the far right and the far left that had protested his government's earlier vaccine and mask rules gained seats.

After the prime minister last week recommended that people resume wearing masks on public transportation, commuter Raphaelle Vertaldi said, "We need to deal with the virus, but we can't stop living because of it."

Vertaldi, who was boarding a train in Boussy-Saint-Antoine south of Paris, said she opposed mandatory mask use but would cover her mouth and nose again, if the government requires it.

Masks have been contentious in France. Early in the pandemic, the French government suggested masks weren't helpful. It ultimately introduced some of Europe's toughest restrictions, including an indoors and outside mask mandate that lasted more than a year, along with strict lockdowns.

A Paris court ruled last Tuesday that the French government failed to sufficiently stock up on surgical masks at the start of the pandemic and to prevent the virus from spreading. The administrative court in Paris also ruled that the government was wrong to suggest early on that that masks did not protect people from becoming infected.

The government lifted most virus rules by April, and foreign tourists have returned by land, sea and air to French Mediterranean beaches, restaurants and bars.

In the meantime, French hospitals are struggling with long-running staff and funding shortages. Local officials are contemplating new measures, including an indoor mask mandate in some cities, but nothing that would curb economic activity.

French tourism professionals expect a booming summer season despite the virus, with numbers that may even surpass pre-pandemic levels as Americans benefit from the weaker euro and others rediscover foreign travel after more than two years of a more circumscribed existence.