Showing a map of the country's new “red zones," French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday urged local authorities to impose new restrictions to slow infections and prevent another economically devastating national lockdown.
“The epidemic is gaining ground, and now we must intervene,” Castex said. France “must do everything to avoid a new confinement."
He acknowledged that the rising cases this summer — attributed mostly to people going on vacation with family and friends — came earlier than authorities expected.
France is now seeing more than 50 positive tests per 100,000 people in Paris, Marseille and other areas. The government announced Thursday that 21 of 101 administrative regions, or departments, are now in the “red zone” where the virus is actively circulating, and where local authorities can impose stricter rules on gatherings and movements.
Castex asked Paris authorities to start requiring mask use everywhere, instead of in just select neighborhoods. Marseille already mandates masks.
Government ministers insisted that the once-renowned French hospital system is better prepared to handle new COVID-19 cases than it was when the virus raced across the country in March and April, saturating intensive care units. France has reported more than 30,500 deaths related to the virus, the third-highest toll in Europe after Britain and Italy, but experts say all confirmed figures understate the true toll of the pandemic due to limited testing and other factors.
France was registering only a few hundred new infections a day in May and June but the number started ticking up in July as the country ramped up testing. Daily cases surged past 5,000 on Wednesday for the first time since May.
The number of virus patients in French hospitals remains low so far despite the jump in infections but it has been steadily rising in recent days.
The government's message Thursday was mixed — while expressing alarm about growing cases, Castex insisted that “living with the virus” is the new national mantra and he wants people to resume work in September as broadly as possible.
To protect vulnerable populations, the prime minister urged people not to hold family parties and said “grandpa and grandma” shouldn’t pick up their grandchildren from school.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said there's no reason to dial back plans to send France's 12.9 million students back to class next week or to reopen cafeterias.
“All children should return to school,” he said.
Blanquer also said letting the Tour de France cycling race go ahead is “a sign that we can continue to live, and the resilience of our society.”
Already delayed from its traditional early July start, cycling's premier event sets off from Nice on Saturday and will crisscross the country for more than three weeks. Fans, tourists and residents usually mass along the route for a beloved event that is a prime advertisement for France's beauty and traditions, organizers this year are urging all spectators to wear masks.