Beaten Back, the Coronavirus Regains Strength in France


PARIS — As the two women sat in deck chairs enjoying the last rays of sunshine near the Canal de l’Ourcq in Paris on Sunday evening, nearby loudspeakers jolted them with a reminder that they were in a new mask-mandatory zone.

“You’ve got your mask?” Safiya Zenag, unmasked, asked her friend, who replied: “No, I didn’t bring it. I hate wearing it.”

Faced with a recent resurgence of coronavirus cases, officials have made mask wearing mandatory in widening areas of Paris and other cities across the country, pleading with the French not to let down their guard and jeopardize the hard-won gains made against the virus during a two-month lockdown this spring.

The signs of a new wave of infection emerged over the summer as people began resuming much of their pre-coronavirus lives, traveling across France and socializing in cafes, restaurants and parks. Many, especially the young, have visibly relaxed their vigilance and have not followed rules on mask wearing or social distancing.

In recent days, France has recorded about 3,000 new infections every day, roughly double the figure at the beginning of the month, and the authorities are investigating an increasing number of clusters.

In April, intensive care units were at 140 percent capacity; only 7 percent were occupied about 10 days ago.

Mr. Sofonea said all European countries were expecting a rebound of the pandemic in the fall, when people who have been away on vacation come back to work and when social interaction resumes.

The French authorities fear that the rising number of infections in young people, many of whom are asymptomatic, may contribute to the spread of the virus to older, more vulnerable people.

“Young people felt a little more invincible,” said Olivier George, a 36-year-old baker. “That’s probably what made them the most affected group.”

The number of tests being carried out across France has increased to about 600,000 a week — or about six times the numbers performed during the height of the outbreak. At that time, France suffered from severe shortages of test kits, making it impossible for many suspected of having Covid-19 to get tested.

Raphaëlle Escande, 23, a business school student, said she fell ill in March with symptoms of the disease, including the loss of smell, a sore throat and fever. “That lasted three weeks,’’ she said. “I stayed home because you couldn’t get tested.”

France’s scientific council, a government body that advises President Emmanuel Macron on the coronavirus crisis, said in a report in late July that “the balance is fragile, and we can change course at any time to a less-controlled scenario.”

The council warned that a second wave was “highly possible” in the fall, given the current trend.

The sharp rise in cases has led the government to declare Paris and the region of Marseille as high-risk zones, effectively granting the local authorities power to impose new measures aimed at containing the spread of the disease.

In Paris, mask wearing had been limited to public transportation and indoor establishments, as it was in the rest of the country. But the requirement was extended to crowded outdoor areas about a week ago, and further expanded across many more swathes of the city over the weekend.

Prime Minister Jean Castex warned last week that the country had been going “the wrong way” for the past few weeks, and said he wanted “to extend as far as possible the obligation to wear masks in public spaces.”

The police will be enforcing the measures — which will be in place for at least a month — with a fine of 135 euros, or $159.

In addition to masks and tests, France now has other tools that were unavailable at the start of the pandemic, including contact-tracing teams and a contact-tracing smartphone application — though neither has been fully tested yet.

As the French learn how to live with the virus, health officials have adapted by quickly moving to extinguish local outbreaks and tightening restrictions as needed. The goal is to prevent local clusters from spiraling out of control and pushing France again into a national lockdown.

Anthony Rasoloarimanana, 40, a travel agent who was walking under the elevated metro tracks of Boulevard de la Chapelle in northern Paris, a new mask-mandatory zone, said he was worried that the recent period of resurgence was similar to the one just before the lockdown in March.

“Have the sacrifices we’ve made over several months been for nothing?” he said of the lockdown. “That would be terrible.”

Théophile Larcher contributed reporting from Paris. Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.


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