From masks to spas: Crossing the French-Swiss border in the Covid era

Anyone who thought that 'Europe' was one homogeneous bloc would have been swiftly disabused of that notion during the pandemic, when all countries imposed different rules and regulations. As lockdown eases these differences remain, as I discovered when taking a trip over the French border to Switzerland.

From masks to spas: Crossing the French-Swiss border in the Covid era
The borders have reopened which means that travel is possible - but every country still has its own health rules. Photo: AFP

During the months of France's strict lockdown a trip down the street to the boulangerie was considered an event, but since lockdown rules have gradually lifted we have all become a little more adventurous, and then on June 15th a tantalising prospect opened up – international travel.

On June 15th France opened up its borders again to non-essential travel from within Europe meaning that activities like visiting friends and family in other countries were once again possible.

I decided to start small with a train trip over the border to neighbouring Switzerland – and found a surprising level of difference in the hygiene rules that each country is employing.

Unlike France, Switzerland never had a strict lockdown with forms and police checks, but the country did close down most aspects of daily life and its borders were also closed to all non-essential travel for several months (although this did not include the many thousands of cross-border workers who travel from France to Switzerland every day).

France itself is seeing some variations from region to region, especially in rural areas, but in Paris where I live there are still quite a few restrictions on daily life.

READ ALSO These are the 9 lockdown rules you still need to follow in France

Masks are compulsory on public transport in France, but only recommended in Switzerland. Photo: AFP

My non-essential but keenly anticipated trip began on the Paris Metro where masks are compulsory. As I arrived at Gare du Lyon, Metro ticket inspectors were carrying out one of their regular ticket checks, which on this occasion also included checking that people were correctly masked.

My fellow passengers were all wearing masks so no fines were issued although one man was sternly instructed to pull up his mask so that it covered his nose (pointless to wear one like that of course, but it was 31C in Paris that morning which means the Metro was pretty sweaty).

The train to Lausanne was not full and we carefully spaced ourselves out in the carriage, obediently masked. Being caught without a mask on any public transport in France (including taxis) can net you a €135 fine.

On arrival in Lausanne, in the Swiss canton of Vaud, however things changed quite dramatically.

Wandering through the station I saw very few masks and the Covid-19 posters giving information on hand-washing and the correct coughing/sneezing technique were conspicuous by their absence.

On the Metro the tannoy announced that masks were “strongly recommended” but this recommendation was almost universally ignored and at the station commuters cheerfully crammed themselves into the lifts with no apparent thought of physical distancing (although that could be because, as locals, they knew exactly how many flights of stairs the alternative involved. Oh well, good cardio).

Meeting up with Switzerland-dwelling friends involved hugs and kisses, quite different to the awkward ballet of 'going in for la bise then realising it is forbidden' that characterises most meetings in France these days and a short car journey from Lausanne took us to a chalet high in a stunning Alpine valley.

Chalet life in an Alpine valley. Photo: The Local

On arrival I had a slightly awkward moment as the French StopCovid app sent me an alert. Just as I was wondering how I would explain to my friends – and the chalet owners – that we were all going to have to quarantine together for the next 14 days, I realised that the app just needed reactivating, presumably because it had moved countries.

Several of the Swiss people in the group had the Swiss covid tracker app, but it seems that our apps cannot communicate with each other, making them slightly pointless in this scenario.

In the village everything was open and shops seemed to lack the distancing markers still widely seen in France, although the local supermarket did have hand sanitiser dispensers in place. 

Hiking in the beautiful Swiss Alps is pretty respectful of social distancing but the nearby spa was also fully open and operational, and although the massage therapist wore a mask I didn't see any other staff wearing them as waiting staff in France are obliged to do. And after a divine full body massage I stopped caring completely about droplet infection, R rates or a second wave – which may be the secret of the Swiss relaxation.

A night's stay in Geneva later and and I was on my way home. Travelling back over the border my passport received a quick check (Switzerland is in the Schengen zone but not the EU which means that passport checks between the two countries are occasional and generally quite cursory). I explained that I was travelling back to Paris where I lived and the border officer dryly commented 'that's a good excuse, Madame'.

Health-related travel restrictions within the EU and the Schengen zone are now largely lifted although some countries still have restrictions in place, while travel to the UK involves a 14-day quarantine.

MAP: Where can you travel from France?

Switzerland does of course still have rules in place and in fact masks will become compulsory on public transport from July 6th.

Large events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future – including the 2021 Geneva motor show – but it seems that on a day-to-day level life in the country has seen less of a lasting change than France, probably because the country saw considerably fewer deaths and its health systems never came close to being overwhelmed.

Whether any of the French changes will be permanent remains to be seen, but some younger French people are hoping that la bise will end up as a casualty of coronavirus.

READ ALSO Kiss off: Why coronavirus could spell the end of 'la bise' in France




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Where in France do you still need a face mask?

In France, masks will no longer be required on indoor transport as of Monday, May 16th. Here are rules and recommendations that are still in place:

Where in France do you still need a face mask?

Members of the public in France have been asked to wear face masks for the most part of two years, at times even outside in the street.

Since March 14th, 2022, the facial coverings have no longer been mandatory in most establishments such as shops, and as of Monday, May 16th, it will no longer be mandatory on indoor public transport. 

As of May 16th, you will therefore no longer be required to wear a mask in the following transports:

  • Buses and coaches
  • Subways and streetcars
  • RER and TER
  • TGV and interregional lines
  • Taxis

Regarding airplanes whether or not you must wear a mask is a bit more complicated.

On Wednesday, May 11th, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced that from May 16th onward it would no longer be required to wear a mask in airports and on board aircraft in the European Union. However, Germany has stated that it does not have the intention of lifting its requirement of wearing a mask on its airlines – this would include the Lufthansa airline. Thus, it will be necessary for passengers to still very to rules each airline has in place, which could be the case when travelling to a country that still has indoor mask requirements in place.

EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky specified that vulnerable people should continue to wear masks, and that “a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, to reassure those seated nearby.”

Masks still obligatory in medical settings

However, it will still be mandatory for caregivers, patients and visitors in health care facilities, specifically including hospitals, pharmacies, medical laboratories, retirement homes, and establishments for the disabled. 

For people who are vulnerable either due to their age or their status as immunocompromised, wearing a mask will continue to be recommended, though not required, particularly for enclosed spaces and in large gatherings.

Masks are also still recommended for people who test positive, people who might have come in contact with Covid-19, symptomatic people and healthcare professionals.

Will masks come back?

It is possible. French Health Minister Olivier Véran does not exclude the return of mandatory mask-wearing, should the health situation require it.

What are the other Covid-19 restrictions that remain in place?

The primary restriction that has not changed is the French government’s regulation for testing positive: If you are unvaccinated and test positive, isolation is still required for 10 days, if you are vaccinated, this requirement is seven days. Isolation can be reduced from 10 to 7 days or from 7 to 5 days if a negative covid test is performed, and symptoms are no longer present.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What Covid restrictions remain in place in France?

The French Health Ministry still recommends following sanitary measures such as: wearing a mask in places where it is still mandatory, hand washing, regular ventilation of rooms, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, and using a single-use handkerchief (tissue).