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Covid-19: How safe is it to return to France's cafe terraces?

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AFP/The Local France - [email protected]
Covid-19: How safe is it to return to France's cafe terraces?
(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 22, 2020 people sit in a terrace Place Saint-Pierre, in Clermont-Ferrand, as French Prime Minister holds a press conference on Covid-19 restrictions. - French President Emmanuel Macron announced on April 29, 2021 that cafes and restaurants will reopen partially on May 19, 2021 after seven months amidst the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Thierry Zoccolan / AFP)

The Italians have been doing it since April, the Greeks started recently - and France on Wednesday followed suit, allowing the country's café, bar and restaurant terraces to reopen for the first time since last autumn. But is there a risk infections will rise?


Outdoor terrace areas of restaurants, bars and cafés reopened on May 19th for the first time in over six months, with June 9th scheduled as the date for reopening of indoor dining and drinking areas, if the health situation allows. 

IN DETAIL: The calendar for reopening France from lockdown 

A Harris Interactive study for Coca-Cola European Partners published on May 7th, revealed that 68 percent of French people are already looking forward to that first drink with friends en terrasse.


Strict conditions will remain in place. Only outdoor terraces will be open; there will be a limit of six people to a table; and France's curfew remains in place, though it is to be shifted from 7pm to 9pm from May 19th.

But Covid-19 is still heavily affecting France and although the numbers are falling there were still 21,712 new cases and 219 deaths were reported on May 6th. So, how safe is it to return to socialising outdoors?

Safer outside

"The main message is still that (outdoor terraces) are far less risky than poorly ventilated interior spaces," epidemiologist Antoine Flahault told AFP, who estimated the risk of infection at 18 to 20 times lower outdoors than inside.

Nearly 18 months after the start of the pandemic, experts agree that Covid-19 is largely transmitted through aerosols - tiny droplets of breath and saliva that hang in the air.

They are produced "through infected people breathing, speaking, shouting or singing," said Flahault, head of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.

"In a poorly ventilated space, an aerosol cloud can hang for several minutes or even hours before dissipating," he said. "But on the terrace, it dissipates rapidly into the atmosphere," he said, likening it to cigarette smoke.

France's younger people are the most keen to enjoy café time with their friends, the Harris study, published by news website 20 Minutes, found. A total 45 percent of 18-24 year olds polled said they wanted to make the most of the planned reopening of bars and restaurants.

More than half (52 percent) said they will head out with family, and 36 percent want to meet up with friends, the poll found. Only 5 percent said they wanted to grab a drink with work colleagues.


Risks remain

Babak Javid, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California in San Francisco, urged caution: "Bars, even outdoor terraces, are potentially problematic, and that's because those environments are associated with loud speech, people being close to each other, and, by definition, not wearing masks."

But he added: "Having said that, being outdoors will substantially reduce risks of transmission compared with indoors."

Indoors, aerosols remain dangerous for those in close quarters with an infected person, as germs can be inhaled before they have chance to dissipate.

Julian Tang, an expert in respiratory viruses at the UK's University of Leicester, agreed: "Aerosols are the main danger, especially those produced by talking and breathing.

"This is why distance between people is the most important factor, even outside, especially when you are eating and drinking and therefore cannot wear a mask."

Vaccines offer the best long-term protection, he said. "Universal Covid-19 vaccination will be the best way to reduce infections in this situation, as in all other situations."

Fans and filters

In a study recently posted online, French researchers also noted a "short-range aerosol risk" and suggested the use of large fans.

"The more these fans induce turbulent fluctuations, rather than an average flow, the better they are," said the authors, students of experimental physics at the University of Paris.

They concluded that the risk varies with the direction of the wind and declines with distance from an infected person. 

The authors of the French study said that besides giant fans, devices could be placed on tables to filter ambient air.



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