COVID-weary French cafes, stores impatient for new lockdown easing

·2 min read
Restaurants and bars prepare to reopen in Paris

PARIS (Reuters) - Across France, cafe owners scrubbed down tables and polished glasses on Tuesday while store managers spruced up their windows as the lockdown-weary country prepared for a new easing of coronavirus constraints on retail businesses.

From Wednesday, non-essential retail outlets will be able to reopen to customers for the first time in six weeks as France gradually winds down its third national lockdown in little more than a year.

"People are fed up, everyone has only one desire - to go out, go to restaurants, go out with friends or family," said Rene Colomban, who manages the Blue Beach bar and restaurant in the Riviera city of Nice.

With infection numbers beginning to improve and a vaccination campaign gaining momentum, retail businesses and their customers are desperate to regain a semblance of normality.

In the western city of Nantes, Alain-Loic Douchin, who manages the Taverne Royale restaurant, said his phone had been ringing off the hook with regulars making reservations.

"People are impatient, like us, to come back," he said as he prepared for the reopening.

Economists estimate the latest lockdown had caused much less disruption than the previous two, as people adapted to working from home and businesses forced to close got by on government handouts and furlough schemes.

Even if the French return in droves to cafes and neighbourhood stores as their owners hope, many retail outlets remain wary about the lingering impact of the crisis.

"Our regular customers have developed new purchasing habits on the internet and the tourists just aren't there," said Cecile Claris, who runs a central Paris gift shop that has been popular with neighbourhood kids for four decades.

"I'm among those who realise that their business is not going to make it," she told Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire at a roundtable discussion with local retail owners.

He tried to reassure her saying that French consumers would return to the stores and cafes as soon as coronavirus restraints were lifted and insisted retailers could continue to count on state support.

"We can't let neighbourhood retailers fall, that would be an economic and human mistake," he said.

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris, Stephane Mahe; in Nantes and Eric Gaillard in Nice, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)