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French mayors slam virus restrictions as infections rise

Published on September 24, 2020

Officials in Paris and Marseille reacted with incomprehension and anger Thursday after the government announced tighter restrictions to curb a coronavirus flare-up, in particular for restaurants and bars already hammered by a two-month lockdown.

The battle lines were drawn between mayors and the central government even as infection rates continue to rise and hospitals begin cancelling non-emergency operations to ensure enough critical care beds.

Health Minister Olivier Veran announced Wednesday that bars, restaurants and gyms in Mediterranean port city Marseille will shutter from Saturday, while eating and drinking establishments in Paris will close at 10:00 pm starting Monday.

Marseille was put on “maximum alert”, while Paris and 10 other cities were at “elevated alert” — the second tier on a new sliding scale system of infection control measures.

France’s second-largest city objected that it was not consulted ahead of time, and insisted that steps taken locally have started slowing the outbreak.

“I am angry because there was no consultation,” Mayor Michele Rubirola, herself a doctor, told Franceinfo radio.

“Why turn the screws when our numbers have been improving for a few days now?”

Owners of restaurants, cafés and other businesses in Marseille said they would stage a protest against the new measures on Friday.

And Bernard Marty of the UMIH employer’s union warned of “insurrection,” with several restaurant owners vowing to ignore the closure orders.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris, which will see its gyms and other indoor sporting facilities closed as well, said she had lodged a formal protest.

“I do not think that the closure of bars after 10:00 pm is an appropriate measure,” Hidalgo told France 3 television.

“It is hard to understand: how will it prevent the spread of the virus? How will the fact that we can no longer exercise help us, while sport is an important part of keeping us healthy with strong immune systems?” she asked.

Veran’s announcement came as France’s public health agency reported 13,072 new cases in 24 hours countrywide, a new daily record since a March-to-May lockdown was lifted.

Over the same period, there were 783 hospital admissions for coronavirus, and 130 new patients in intensive care.

– ‘Responsibility’ first –

Paris hospital authority AP-HP said Thursday that an influx of coronavirus patients was forcing it to start cancelling non-emergency surgery starting this weekend.

The number of coronavirus patients in Paris hospitals had more than doubled in three weeks, from 150 to 330, and would probably reach 600 by month’s end, said deputy director Francois Cremieux.

Numbers of Covid-19 patients in intensive care have followed a similar upward curve, from 50 three weeks ago to 132 on Wednesday and likely more than 200 by next week, he said.

With a quarter of critical care beds now taken up by coronavirus patients, AP-HP will start by cancelling 20 percent of operations to free up capacity, said Cremieux.

But even as cases rise, patience with Covid-19 restrictions is running low.

Franck Trouet of the GNI hotel and restaurant employers’ union said the new measures were “counterproductive.”

“By closing our establishments at 10:00 pm we are pushing our customers to party elsewhere: the beaches and banks of rivers while the weather is still nice, and after that to private apartments,” he said.

And the Association of French Mayors sought a meeting with Prime Minister Jean Castex to discuss the future of local epidemic management.

Veran told a Senate committee on Thursday morning that political agreement was not necessary in extraordinary circumstances. “At some point the principle of responsibility must take precedence,” he said.

Public gatherings in the 12 French cities on the highest alert levels have been limited to ten people, and attendance of large sporting events or concerts to 1,000.

Veran said similar restrictions could follow for other cities and towns.