As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in France topped 2,870 on Thursday and the death toll reached 61, French President Emmanuel Macron announced new measures to contain the spread in the country.
“I want to be very clear with you tonight,” Macron said during a televised speech on Thursday evening. “We are only at the beginning of the epidemic.”
The president urged anyone aged over 70, disabled or in poor health to stay at home and limit social contact as much as possible. Starting Monday, all schools in the country will close their doors for an unspecified amount of time.
“The education sector has entered stage 3,” education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer confirmed on Friday morning.
Just 24 hours earlier Blanquer had said that the government “never envisaged” closing all of the country's schools, because it would be “counter-productive” to “paralyse a large part of the country.”
While President had not said whether the country had entered stage 3 – a full-blown epidemic status – although he had previously said that France was very close to such a state.
“We have anticipated, we are prepared and we have excellent staff,” Macron said as he visited a hospital earlier this week.
On Friday, the popular tourist park Disneyland Paris announced that it would temporarily shut its gates, after three of its staff tested positive for the coronavirus this week. The decision came after the park had previously said it would remain open to visitors but with “temporary adjustments” to its cancellation policy for anyone wishing to cancel reservation at the Disney Hotel through April 15th.
The country also suspended all matches in its top football divisions. The country's professional rugby league also announced a suspension.
France is also included in the list of Schengen zone countries which the USA has banned flights from. Many aspects of the ban, announced by US president Donald Trump on Wednesday night, are still unclear but it seems that American citizens are not covered, nor are flights via the UK.
Health minister Olivier Véran said on Wednesday night that 105 people were in hospital in a serious condition.
French Health Director Jérôme Salomon has previously stressed that so far, 98 percent of people diagnosed with coronavirus in France make a full recovery.
France had already enacted restrictions on gatherings of more than 1,000 people and the 10 'cluster' zones where the majority of cases have been diagnosed have strict restrictions on any type of public gathering.
However the first round of the municipal elections will go ahead as planned on Sunday, President Macron confirmed on Thursday evening.
Areas now considered 'cluster' zones are; Mulhouse in the Haut-Rhin département in eastern France, Oise in the north east, Morbihan in Brittany, two areas in Haute-Savoie in the Alps, the entire island of Corsica,the Aude département in southern France, Calvados in Normandy and eastern Montpellier.
A tenth cluster was a tour group that had travelled to Egypt, with 13 people testing positive for the infection.
Schools in the Oise and Haut-Rhin département have been closed for a week, and the island of Corsica followed suit as well as 16 communes in the eastern part of Montpellier and the surrounding Hérault département.
Corsica, which did not initially record any cases, has now confirmed 51 cases and a cluster around the capital Ajaccio. On Thursday morning the prefect of Corsica announced that all gatherings of more than 50 people would be banned until April 15th.
President Emmanuel Macron visiting the Necker hospital in Paris on Tuesday. Photo: AFP
French authorities have been clear since the outbreak first began in Italy that a full epidemic in France is only a matter of time, and have concentrated their efforts on delaying the peak of the spread of the virus.
Macron on Tuesday expressed his gratitude to the “wonderful and courageous” medical services and asked that people continue to “show solidarity” to the most vulnerable in society by following health advice including washing hands and self isolating if necessary.
Five French MPs plus Culture Minister Franck Riester and two staff members at the parliament have also tested positive for coronavirus. The Assemblée Nationale is already on a scheduled break over the period of the municipal elections.
Riester has contracted the novel coronavirus and is staying in his Paris home but is “doing fine”, his office said Monday.
“The minister tested positive today,” after displaying symptoms, the ministry said.
French health minister Olivier Véran. Photo: AFP
All gatherings of more than 1,000 have been banned, a step that will have a huge impact on cultural life in France with numerous concert halls and venues across the country having to postpone upcoming concerts.
Public transport is not covered by the ban, nor are demonstrations.
France had already passed a decree that anyone who is following government advice to self isolate, or whose children are unable to go to school because of coronavirus, is entitled to paid sick leave.
President Emmanuel Macron had said people should “protect the most vulnerable” and stop visiting older people during the outbreak.
Coronavirus: Emmanuel Macron appelle à “éviter de visiter nos anciens” pic.twitter.com/e9AmcCNiO7
— BFMTV (@BFMTV) March 6, 2020
France has also banned visits to the country's retirement homes.
Concerts including performances at the Paris Opéra have been cancelled but Paris' largest tourist attractions including the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay remain open, albeit with limits in place on the number of visitors.
Macron has cancelled his normal schedule to deal with the outbreak (and not, the Elysée Palace rushed to reassure people, because he has coronavirus himself).
French ministers have warned against all non-essential travel – especially outside the EU – and advised people in France to stop shaking hands and doing la bise (greeting with a kiss on each cheek) in an attempt to control the infection.
A man wearing a protective mask shops in the market of Crepy-in-Valois before its evacuation following the outbreak of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. Photo: AFP
The government has requisitioned the country's stocks of masks to distribute to health professionals and people self isolating, in a bid to stop people panic buying and creating shortages for those who need them.
Health minister Véran has said “masks are indispensable” in hospitals, but “pointless” for anyone who is not themselves either a health worker or contaminated by the virus.
Fears of catching the virus have sparked a run on masks as well as sanitising hand gel in France, leading some stores and online retailers to hike prices.
The price of hand sanitser was capped last week by government decree a €3 per 100ml.
French police officers evacuate the market of Crepy-in-Valois on March 1, 2020, following the outbreak of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. Photo: AFP