PARIS (AP) – Parisians fleeing for the countryside blocked roads before France was locked down to slow the spread of resurgent coronavirus infections, and there was only a pinch of people scurrying along the sidewalks in the city on Friday as national restrictions went into effect.
Dystopian images of traffic jams stretching for 700 kilometers at one point on Thursday night – exacerbated by the long holiday weekend ahead – were a grim sign of a return to the gloomy days of spring, when cases of the virus swelled for the first time in Europe, and many countries kept their citizens indoors for weeks. With infections reaching record levels in some countries, many resort to severe restrictions again.
In France, fears were growing that the increase in infections could overwhelm the country’s health system, so authorities ordered another four-week lockdown starting Friday. Many parts of the French capital looked like a regular lazy weekend morning – which would normally have been a busy weekday. Those who went out often grabbed permission forms showing that they had an exemption that allowed them to be on the streets.
The only places that were busy were the grocery stores and markets, as people stocked food and other essentials.
The 67 million French people were ordered to stay at home at all times without visitors, on pain of heavy fines or prosecution. There are a few exceptions, such as being allowed an hour of exercise a day within a mile of home, going to medical appointments, going to work, or buying essential products. Restaurants and cafes are closed, except for those offering take-out.
“Going to friends, receiving friends and moving for something other than the reasons given” will be impossible, Prime Minister Jean Castex firmly explained Thursday.
It will hit hard for many.
“It’s not pleasant because I left my country to live the experience of living in another country,” said Laura Beimberg, 28, an intern at cosmetics giant L’Oréal from Mexico. “And this experience of being within four walls, away from family and friends is so difficult.
French President Emmanuel Macron has implemented the lockdown as a last resort to curb the sharp rise in infections across the country, where new daily cases currently average around 50,000. This means that, on a per capita basis, France is recording every day about two and a half times the number of new cases than the United States.
But France is not alone. Many of its European neighbors are seeing an increase in infections, some even exceeding what they saw in the spring. In Belgium, the average number of daily cases is around 150 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to around 62 in France.
The Belgian government is meeting on Friday to consider even stricter restrictions on movements that would amount to a virtual lockdown. Germany, which is also seeing an increase in cases, but on a much less dramatic scale, this week agreed to a month-long closure of restaurants, bars, theaters and other leisure facilities, dubbed ‘the lock light’.
Such measures have had a brutal impact on European economies, and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire made grim predictions in an interview with France-Inter, upping his estimate of the depth of the recession. He predicted an 11% drop in GDP this year.
French residents could perhaps be forgiven for thinking it was Groundhog Day, just months after they emerged from one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns.
Some accepted reality.
“We just have to live with it. You have resigned yourself to it, ”said Yoann Boullé, 28, manager of an optimistic evening in a Parisian brasserie.
But many Parisians, who had had enough last time, did not wait four weeks to be confined to their generally cramped apartments.
Carlo Ponti, a 54-year-old interior designer, was among those who fled Paris, but he did so by train. He called the departure of the Parisians a “historic exodus”.
He left on Friday morning with her husband after finding that all trains were booked on Thursday evening.
“The minute the French president gave his speech (announcing a lockdown), the entire national trains website shut down, was overloaded. Everyone wanted to book to get away from it all, ”Ponti said.
He plans to stay in his second home in the French region of Burgundy until Christmas.
“During the lockdown, the quality of life in the capital is terrible and therefore anyone who can do it is trying to run away,” he said.
The highways around the capital turned into scenes of traffic chaos overnight as residents fled the capital. French media reported that traffic jams were more than double normal in the Paris region, reaching near record levels, as many headed to country or family homes with more space.
The traffic was made worse by the fact that many were also leaving for the All Saints’ Day holidays on November 1.
Macron said authorities would be “tolerant” of families returning from vacation on Monday, but otherwise interregional travel is strictly prohibited.
Adamson reported from Leeds, England.
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