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What virus? Parisians pack cafes as city gets its magic back

PARIS (AP) — Paris is rediscovering its joie de vivre, as cafes and restaurants reopen for the first time since the fast-spreading coronavirus forced them to close their doors on March 14. Many customers seemed to shrug off masks and social distancing as they streamed back to their neighborhood bistros for a morning espresso or a three-course lunch Monday, free to resume their lifestyles by a surprise announcement from the French president himself.

“We will rediscover ... the art of living, our taste for freedom,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address to the nation Sunday night, citing progress in fighting the virus. “We will rediscover France.”

After two months of being totally shut down as part of France’s strict virus lockdown measures, restaurants outside the Paris region opened earlier this month. Since June 2, Paris cafes have been allowed to serve people outside but not open their doors. Before Macron's speech, the full reopening wasn’t expected until later this month.

At the Café Des Anges in the heart of the Bastille neighborhood of Paris, customers seemed happy to reconnect and talked about the need to remain careful — yet almost no one wore a mask. France has the world's fifth-highest recorded toll from the virus, at 29,410 dead.

“It’s like a renaissance, but with caution,” said customer Marie-Elisabeth Vilaine. The reopening Monday caught many restaurant owners off guard — just like the abrupt closure three months ago, when the prime minister announced at 8 p.m. on a Saturday that all the country’s restaurants had to shut down by midnight.

Paris seemed especially depressing as restaurants, the lifeblood of the city, stood shuttered, chairs stacked against the windows, menus gathering dust. After three months of losses, some restaurateurs fear it will take a long time for business to come back. Some French restaurants are experimenting with plastic barriers and air-filtration systems to soothe fears. The risk of a second wave of infections remains real, notably after new virus clusters in some countries and U.S. states were traced back to reopened restaurants or other sites.

Cafe des Anges manager Virgile Grunberg — who makes his staff wear masks — said he’s lost hundreds of thousands of euros because of the closure, but has hope for a recovery because he has a loyal clientele.

“People have missed this, because they come in every morning before work, have a little coffee and a discussion,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s part of Paris.” But he acknowledged that “it’s very hard to get people who are sitting at the bar to respect social distancing ... if they want to be together, it’s going to be hard to prevent them from doing so."

One essential ingredient is still absent from French streets: tourists. France threw open its borders to other European countries Monday, as did several of its neighbors, in hopes of luring some visitors back. But tourists from the U.S., Asia and other continents won’t be allowed back until at least July 1, and French authorities could re-impose restrictions in the case of new infections.

British tourists, so close just across the Channel, face a 14-day quarantine when they enter France now. Paris cafe customer Thierry Lanternier welcomed the further easing of virus rules, saying, “Let’s just hope it lasts.”

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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