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France cracks down on Covid rule breakers to avoid lockdown

French police have ramped up checks of bars, restaurants and shops after the government demanded harder punishments for those breaching the Covid-19 health restrictions.

France cracks down on Covid rule breakers to avoid lockdown
A police officer inspects a bar in Paris on February 3rd. Photo: AFP

The scene at the small Parisian cafe looks almost normal: smokers queueing for a pack of cigarettes, gamblers buying lottery tickets or picking up betting slips for the races.

That is, until the police walk in, reminding customers, and the owner, that nothing is the same in the Covid pandemic.

“There are too many people here, count them,” an officer orders his team.

It turns out that nine people are crowding the tiny space, too many according to government rules saying that shops and other outlets can admit only one customer for every eight square metres (86 square feet) of floor space.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government is trying to avoid another Covid lockdown, which would be France’s third, even as infection numbers remain high.

On Wednesday, the public health authority reported 26,362 new Covid cases for the previous 24 hours, and 358 Covid deaths.

‘I don’t want to close’ 

Instead the government hopes that measures already in force – including a nightly curfew from 6pm and a ban on cafes and restaurants except for takeaway fare – will be enough to cut infection numbers.

To make sure they do, authorities are getting tougher on those who don’t comply.

“Please let us stay open, I don’t want to close, I want to work,” pleads the owner of the bar in the east of the capital when the officer tells him that he risks being closed down as well as fined.

To no avail: “I’m not the prefect, I don’t decide, I simply file my report,” the policeman responds.

A Paris police officer writes a ticket inside a restaurant on February 3rd. Photo AFP

Once such an incident is reported, sanctions can follow quickly, sometimes the same day, or the next morning.

“It’s a tough job. I’m always on my clients’ backs, always telling them to wear masks. I enforce the law, but customers don’t like it,” the owner says from behind the bar fitted with sheets of plastic for protection.

But the officer is adamant: “You have to educate your clients. Here, you need to think of yourself as both a tobacconist and a policeman.”

The owner promises to post a large sign at the door saying “No more than three people at the same time.”

Over the past week, the French capital’s police have cracked down much more severely on establishments receiving customers that do not meet the health requirements.

“We’ve become much stricter. We don’t tolerate any violations,” said Romain Semedard, police chief for Paris’s 12th Arrondissement. “We used to hand out warnings. Now we close them down, usually for a week or two.”

At a kebab takeaway nearby, police caught a staff member with a face mask tucked under his nose instead of covering it, and fined him €135 on the spot.

A tobacconist failing to advertise the maximum number of clients allowed was fined the previous day.

Police patrol the streets of Paris. Photo: AFP

‘A question of fairness’

And a corner grocer who was caught staying open beyond the 6pm curfew received notice to shutter the shop.

“That may seem harsh, but it’s a question of fairness towards those who abide by the rules,” Semedard said.

Inside a small Italian restaurant, an elderly lady was sitting at a table and a regular was leaning on the bar when the police arrived.

“They’re waiting for their takeout order and the lady needed to sit, is that allowed?” the anxious restaurant owner inquired when a patrol arrived.

“So long as they don’t eat or drink in here, everything is in order,” an officer replied.

Further down the street, the patrol inspected the cellar of a restaurant for signs of any recent illegal gathering, but they found only stacks of tables and chairs stored away awaiting better days.

Elsewhere in Paris, police discovered 24 restaurants opening illegally last week alone, and shut them all down for two weeks.

Authorities have also been making good on a threat by Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who said that restaurants violating Covid rules would lose access to emergency government funding for a month at first, and indefinitely if they are caught again.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

With travel opening up, many people are planning trips to France over the next few months, but the Covid pandemic has not gone away. Here are your questions answered on testing, isolation and medical treatment if you do fall sick while on holiday.

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

Travel rules

Covid-related travel rules have mostly been relaxed now but you will still need to show proof of being fully vaccinated at the French border. If you are not vaccinated you will need to show a negative Covid test – find the full breakdown of the rules HERE.

Testing

Once in France if you develop symptoms or you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive you will need to get a Covid test.

The good news is that testing is widely available in France, both for residents and tourists.

The easiest way to get a test is head to a pharmacy, most of which offer the rapid-result antigen test on a walk-in basis Tests are available to everyone who wants one, there is no need to fulfill any set criteria.

For full details on how to get a test, and some handy French vocab, click HERE.

The difference for tourists is that you will have to pay for your test, while residents get their costs reimbursed by the French state health system.

In the pharmacy you may be asked for your carte vitale – this is the health card that residents use to claim refunds. As a tourist you won’t have the card – you can still get the test, you will just need to pay for it. Costs vary between pharmacies but are capped at €22 for an antigen test or €54 for a PCR test.

Isolation

If your test is positive you are legally required to isolate, but how long your isolation period is depends on the your vaccination stats – full details HERE.

Treatment

For most fully-vaccinated people without underlying health conditions the symptoms of Covid are fairly mild, but if you do become ill, here’s how to access medical help while in France.

Pharmacy – one of the first things you will notice about France is that pharmacies are everywhere, just look out for the green cross. As well as selling over-the-counter medication, pharmacies all have at least one fully-qualified pharmacist on the staff who can offer medical advice. 

Take advantage of pharmacists – they train for at least six years so they’re very knowledgeable and they’re easy to access by simply walking into the shop. In tourist areas it’s likely that they will speak English. Pharmacists can also signpost you to a nearby doctor if you need extra help.

Doctors – if you need to see a doctor, look out for a médecin généraliste (a GP or family doctor). There is no need to be registered with a doctor, simply call up and ask for an appointment if you need one. If you have a smartphone you can use the medical app Doctolib to find a généraliste in your area who speaks English. You will need to pay for your consultation – €25 is the standard charge and you pay the doctor directly using either cash or a debit card.

You may be able to claim back the cost later on your own health/travel insurance depending on the policy.

Ambulance – if you are very sick or have difficulty breathing you should call an ambulance – the number is 15. All non-residents are entitled to emergency treatment in France, whether or not you have insurance, but if you are admitted or have treatment you may need to pay later.

READ ALSO Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Paxlovid – several readers have asked whether the Covid treatment drug Paxlovid is available in France. It was licenced for use in February 2022 and is available on prescription from pharmacies, mainly for people with underlying health conditions or an impaired immune system. You can get a prescription from a medical practitioner.

The drug is reimbursed for French residents, but as a tourist you will have to pay.

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