Armed with the French track and trace app – Stop Covid, the French government issued facemasks and a bulk load of hand sanitiser, I got back into the “new normal” French way of life quicker than I thought possible in what is known as a Covid green zone in South West France.
France reopened its hospitality sector completely in green zones from 2 June, a month before the UK. It introduced enforced wearing of masks in all enclosed spaces from Monday 20 July, failure to do so results in a €700 fine.
Having issued masks to every household in the country, it sent an additional 40m this week to the most vulnerable. Every entrance to a shop, building, bar or restaurant now displays the mask obligatory poster and message.
Unlike the UK, on entering a bar or restaurant, just like a shop or office building, a mask is mandatory. It is removed when you take a seat inside but back on when you move to use the toilet or leave. You don’t have to wear one at outside tables. All staff front and back of house must wear either masks or visors, inside and out.
At the village bar and bistro Chez Jano in St Projet, trade is steadily getting back to normal. Business is on a level to winter sales and gradually increasing week on week.
The only changes you see is no standing at the bar and one owner, Nigel with his clear visor, who is usually seen behind the bar is now only offering table service, a norm in France anyway.
Oh, and you don’t get the usual shared bowl of cheesy nibbles. He’s managing to get enough of the beer that he needs from local Ratz brewery; there hasn’t been a problem in supply, and prices have stayed the same.
Eight miles away in the beautiful historic small town of St Antonin Noble Val, it looks and feels as busy as usual.
80% to 95% capacity to normal
Speaking to the bar and restaurant owners there, they are at 80% to 95% capacity to normal with the French very much back into their long lunches.
All waiting staff inside and outside of venues appear to be used to wearing their masks – it’s just routine now.
What is the biggest difference here is the mix of tourists. In the Beffroi Tentations restaurant you would normally see an equal mixture of French, English and Dutch customers. Now, the vast majority are French, as they stay home to holiday and reintroduce themselves to France as their summer destination.
Customer numbers at this popular restaurant are nearly back to normal at 95%, albeit a different customer breakdown.
Across the same square, bar Café de la Halle, featured in the Hollywood movies Charlotte Gray and The Hundred Foot Journeym, is enjoying its usual busy afternoon. Business hasn’t changed here and rules seem to be lax with outside tables remaining close and social distancing not that big on the agenda.
Another wet-led bar, Le Lagardere, which does serve food in the small town of Caylus, trade is quieter. All staff are wearing masks, but the locals inside don’t seem to have a mask between them.
Like the UK, French businesses are taking advantage of extending their outdoor trading areas. Having a similar simplified regime to the UK to increase outside covers, more bars and restaurants are taking over the pavements and public spaces close by with additional tables.
You can see the benefits of this 40 miles west in the medieval city of Albi, where a large open square around the huge, iconic Cathedral has increased its capacity of terraced seating.
Throughout the summer months, the population of 81,000 normally soars with the historic attractions and the restaurants and bars brimming with international tourists.
Trade is marginally quieter but not to a huge degree. The usual summer tables and chairs in the square have been extended as additional ‘Covid space’ has been permitted.
However, the local council has also implemented a time restriction which sees the seating return to the winter terrace trading areas after 31 August. This is causing outrage and concern with local traders.
Sign the petition
At every table there are posters requesting customers to sign the petition to protect the ‘Covid’ seating area well into the winter months and beyond.
One bar owner said if that doesn’t happen, he will close, along with his neighbouring two bars in September and make his 10 staff redundant. The usual terrace area and socially spaced interior won’t allow any of them to break even.
So, seven weeks in to being reopen, the hospitality sector in France is nearly back normal.
There’s no nervousnous with customers or staff as cleaning, hand sanitiser stations and facemasks are just part of the experience.
I thought that having serving staff wear a mask would impact my experience of going out but surprisingly it hasn’t.
Seeing someone serve in a mask has become the norm, you see their smile in their eyes and it feels good that they are protected
As a customer, I can’t deny that wearing one can be hot and claustrophobic, but you get used to it and do actually feel safer.
So coming out of lockdown, if the UK can adjust as quickly as France, adding to their trading areas where they can and possibly introducing masks for staff, it will likely encourage more people of all ages to come out and keep us open and trading.
We just need our drinks manufacturers and brewers to come up with great looking branded masks and it will not only be the new normal but the new cool.