French restaurant owners protest new closures in virus fight

Hundreds of restaurant and bar owners protested in the southern French city of Marseille on Friday against new shutdown orders to curb surging coronavirus numbers, as the country recorded nearly 16,000 new cases.

Health Minister Olivier Veran announced the closures for Marseille and the surrounding region this week after contagion rates jumped, while bars and restaurants in Paris and 10 other cities will have to shut by 10:00 pm starting Monday.

“We cannot allow ourselves to dither,” Veran told reporters in Marseille Friday.

“I am fully aware that some of these measures are controversial”, sparking worry “and even anger”, he said, but “they are not arbitrary”.

France’s public health agency warned that epidemic is in an “ascending phase”, announcing that 15,797 new infections were registered on Friday, slightly down from the previous day’s record of 16,096.

Over the past 24 hours, 56 people had died of the virus in hospital — four more than Thursday.

New virus deaths rose by 25 percent last week, and cases among the elderly were also accelerating again, the agency said.

“These numbers worry us because they raise the prospect of more admissions to hospital, more need for intensive care, and possibly more deaths,” Sophie Vaux, an epidemiologist at the agency, told reporters.

Officials are hoping to get ahead of the flare-up before hospitals are overwhelmed, but critics accuse the government of taking arbitrary measures that will take a huge economic toll.

“This is the last straw — We were starting to get back on our feet,” said Patrick Labourrasse, a restaurant owner in Aix-en-Provence, a city near Marseille which is also affected by the order.

The Marseille demonstration took place outside the Mediterranean port city’s commercial courthouse, “because this is where we’ll probably come to declare bankruptcy,” said Bernard Marty, president of the regional hospitality association.

“Stay open — don’t close!” several supporters yelled, while booing the name of Veran.

The regional UPE 13 employers’ federation denounced a “new economic lockdown” and called for a 10-day moratorium on the Marseille closures, to give social distancing and other measures a chance to work.

Otherwise, the shutdowns “will seriously endanger the economy and jobs across the territory,” it said in a statement.

But regional president Renaud Muselier said bars and restaurants would shut from Sunday evening.

According to French health authorities, Marseille has the highest infection rate in mainland France with 281 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Some 50 local lawmakers signed an open letter Thursday accusing the central government of a “fundamental strategic mistake — you are worsening the economic crisis and creating a social crisis, without doing anything to halt the health crisis.”

But Prime Minister Jean Castex defended the new restrictions, promising financial aid for affected businesses, while warning that “it’s a race against the clock” in Marseille.

“What I don’t want is for us to go back to March,” when a two-month nationwide lockdown sent the economy into a tailspin as Covid-19 deaths soared, Castex said in a prime-time interview Thursday. (AFP)