Faced with hospitalizations, France is considering returning to masks

NICE, France (AP) – Tourism in France is booming again – and with it COVID-19. French officials have “invited” or “recommended” people to start using face masks again, but have stopped renewing restrictions that would deter visitors or reignite anti-government protests.

From Parisian commuters to tourists on the Cote d’Azur, many seem to be welcoming the government’s light touch, while some fear the necessary preventative measures may be needed.

Virus-related hospital admissions have risen rapidly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 a day, according to government data. Infections are also increasing in Europe and the United Statesbut France has an exceptionally high proportion of people in hospital, according to Our World in Data estimates.

French government spokeswoman Olivia Gregoire said there were no plans to reintroduce national regulations restricting indoor gatherings and other activities or imposing conditions.

“The French are fed up with the restrictions,” she said on Wednesday on BFMTV. “We are confident that people will behave responsibly.”

France’s general elections last month saw President Emmanuel Macron lose his majority in the national legislature, while parties on the far right and far left had protested his government’s earlier vaccine and mask rules won seats.

After the Prime Minister recommended this week that people should wear masks again on public transport, commuter Raphaelle Vertaldi said: “We have to deal with the virus, but we cannot stop living because of it.”

Vertaldi, who boarded a train in Boussy-Saint-Antoine, south of Paris, said she opposed the mandatory use of masks but would cover her mouth and nose again if the government asked for it.

Hassani Mohammed, a postal worker in Paris, did not wait for the government’s decision. He masks himself before his daily commute to work. With his wife recovering from surgery and two children at home, he doesn’t want to risk contracting the coronavirus a third time.

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

Masks are controversial in France. At the start of the pandemic, the French government suggested masks were not helpful. Ultimately, some of Europe’s toughest restrictions were put in place, including an indoor and outdoor mask mandate lasting more than a year and strict lockdowns.

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

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

French hospitals are now struggling with long-serving staff and funding bottlenecks. Local officials are considering new measures, including a mandatory indoor mask program in some cities, but nothing that would curb economic activity.

French tourism professionals are expecting a booming summer season despite the virus, with numbers that could even top pre-pandemic levels as Americans benefit from the weaker euro and rediscover other trips abroad after more than two years of a more restricted existence.

A slow economic recovery began on the Côte d’Azur last summer. But with attendance at gatherings still limited, social distancing rules and travel restrictions in place a year ago, most visitors to the region were French.

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

Now, passengers on their bikes from the US, Australia, Germany, Italy or beyond are reaching for the hand sanitizer attached to the barrier between the passenger and driver seats. 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 pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. They started with a cruise on the Rhône – masks were compulsory on the ship – and ended with a few days on the Mediterranean.

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

Sue Baker, who was traveling with her husband Phil and the Runcies, remarked, “It feels very 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 holiday, we’ll put them back on without hesitation.”

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

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