PARIS (AP) – The virus is actively circulating in around 20% of regions in France and masks will now be required for everyone in Paris – but the government is determined to reopen schools next week, get workers back to work and to launch the cycling race tour of France on Saturday.
Showing a map of the country’s new “red zones”, French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday urged local authorities to impose new restrictions to slow infections and prevent another economically devastating national lockdown.
“The epidemic is gaining ground and we must now intervene,” Castex said. France “must do everything to avoid a new confinement”.
He acknowledged that the rise in cases this summer – mostly attributable to people going on vacation with family and friends – came sooner than expected.
France now records more than 50 positive tests per 100,000 inhabitants in Paris, Marseille and elsewhere. The government announced Thursday that 21 of the 101 administrative regions, or departments, are now in the “red zone” where the virus is actively circulating, and where local authorities can impose stricter rules on gatherings and movements.
Castex asked the Parisian authorities to start requiring the use of masks everywhere, instead of limiting themselves to certain neighborhoods. Marseille is already imposing masks.
Government ministers have insisted that France’s once-famous hospital system is better prepared to handle new cases of COVID-19 than it was when the virus swept across the country in March and April, saturating intensive care units. France has reported more than 30,500 virus-related deaths, the third highest death toll in Europe after Britain and Italy, but experts say all confirmed figures underestimate the true toll from the pandemic in due to limited testing and other factors.
France recorded just a few hundred new infections a day in May and June, but the number started to rise in July as the country ramped up testing. Daily cases surpassed 5,000 on Wednesday for the first time since May.
The number of patients infected with the virus in French hospitals remains low so far despite the increase in infections, but it has steadily increased in recent days.
The government’s message on Thursday was mixed – while expressing concern over the growth of cases, Castex insisted that ‘living with the virus’ is the new national mantra and he wants people to return to work in September on more widely possible.
To protect vulnerable populations, the prime minister urged people not to organize family celebrations and said “grandfather and grandmother” should not pick up their grandchildren from school.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said there was no reason to back down plans to send France’s 12.9 million students back to class next week or to reopen cafeterias.
“All children should go back to school,” he said.
Blanquer also said that letting the Tour de France cycle race go on is “a sign that we can continue to live and the resilience of our society”.
Already late compared to its traditional start in early July, the flagship cycling event leaves from Nice on Saturday and will crisscross the country for more than three weeks. Fans, tourists and residents usually congregate along the route for a beloved event that is top notch publicity for France’s beauty and traditions, organizers this year urging all spectators to wear masks .
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