France restaurant cafe covid
A restaurant worker carries chairs as he prepares the terrace at a restaurant in Bayonne, southwestern France, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The outdoor terraces of France's cafes and restaurants will be allowed to reopen on May 19 along with museums, cinemas, theaters and concert halls under certain restrictions. Image Credit: AP

Paris: It’s a grand day for the French. Cafe and restaurant terraces are reopening Wednesday after a shutdown of more than six months deprived people of what feels like the essence of life - sipping coffee and wine with friends - to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

The French government is lifting restrictions incrementally to stave off a resurgence of COVID-19 and to give citizens back some of their signature “joie de vivre”. As part of the first stage of the plan, France’s 7pm nightly curfew will now start at 9pm. Museums, theatres and cinemas are reopening along with outside areas of eating and drinking establishments.

France is not the first European country to start getting back a semblance of social and cultural life. Italy, Belgium, Hungary and other nations already have started allowing outdoor dining, while drinking and eating indoors began in Britain’s pubs on Monday.

Eateries in France have been closed since the end of October, the longest time of any European country except Poland bars and restaurants reopened Saturday for outdoor service after being closed for seven months.

Some French cafe and restaurant owners have spent days preparing for Wednesday’s milestone, even though rain is forecast for large swaths of the country, including Paris, the city that epitomizes France’s culture and cafe society.

The government also has put serious limits on how much fun can be had. Restaurants can fill only 50% of their outdoor seating areas and put no more than six people at a table. Movie theatres must limit audiences to 35% of capacity, while museums must restrict entry so there is 8 square meters of space (86 square feet) per visitor.

The government plans to extend the curfew until 11pm and to permit indoor dining at restaurants and bistros starting on June 9. The final phase of the three-stage reopening plan is scheduled for June 30, when the curfew will end and all other restrictions will be lifted, if pandemic conditions allow.

France has recorded more than 108,000 deaths due to COVID-19, among the highest tolls in Europe. But deaths, admissions to critical care units and the coronavirus infection rate are on the decline.

“What counts is the dynamic,” Health Minister Olivier Veran said this week on BFMTV. Vaccinations “have changed the givens.”

About 40% of France’s adult population had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Rain or shine, restrictions or not, a good number of people are expected to take advantage of their new freedom on Wednesday.

At least that’s what Jerome Haeffelin, the owner of Le Ponthieu, a Right Bank bistro in a crowded district of Paris, hopes. He invested 20,000 euros ($24,000) to create an outdoor terrace.

“We’ll try hard to enforce (the rules), to stack the odds in our favour and stay open in the long run,” Haeffelin said.