‘A curfew at nine o’clock is like closing restaurants’: For the French, the latest COVID measures cross a line

October 15, 2020, 11:34 AM UTC

Steps from Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral sits one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Au Vieux Paris D’Arcole, a medieval jewel whose stone walls and chandeliers (not to mention fine cuisine) have wowed visitors for decades. Built in 1512, it has withstood the French Revolution, two World Wars, the Nazi occupation, and much else.

But after nearly 500 years, the restaurant is battling to survive the newest calamity: the pandemic. After a two-and-a-half month nationwide lockdown earlier this year, and a ban since March on American tourists—a major source of revenue for Paris—the restaurant recently laid off six of its eight employees. 

Then on Wednesday night came the latest blow, when French President Emmanuel Macron announced a four-week curfew in Paris from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., beginning Saturday night. The measure extends to eight other cities and came after weeks in which the French returned from their long summer break and poured into the parks, markets, and restaurants, reveling in cities that have suddenly come alive with action—and with no tourists, all their own.

Within weeks, coronavirus cases began soaring and this week hit about 20,000 new cases a day. In the Paris region, about 46% of all ICU beds are now filled with COVID-19 patients, according to Paris’s public-health officials on Thursday. Reassuring the alarmed public, Macron said in a televised address on Wednesday night that it would be “disproportionate to lock down the country again.” The curfew, he said, was a targeted measure: “With this, it is our objective, in a very concrete manner, to halt the virus.” 

But to many Paris restaurants, Macron’s curfew might just as well be another total lockdown. 

“To have a curfew at nine o’clock is like closing restaurants,” Georges De La Rochebrochard, the owner of Au Vieux Paris D’Arcole, told me on Thursday morning. “The French begin eating dinner at about 8.30 p.m.,” he says. “Only Americans eat at seven o’clock, and they are not here.”

Last blast of freedom

To us Paris residents, that has long been clear. In normal times, hordes of tourists jam the streets during the day around the Louvre Museum, and the Champs-Elysées and other major shopping districts; tourism represents about 11.7% of Paris revenue, and Americans contribute by far the biggest share, with nearly 2.26 million U.S. visitors to the city last year.

But it feels like real Paris comes alive at nighttime. On Wednesday night, as Macron made his televised address to the nation, I was at a book launch attended by about 20 women, many of them American. Midway through the evening, our phones began buzzing with news of the curfew. “Come for dinner Saturday night, we’re cooking,” said a friend as I was leaving, before hearing about the curfew. Suddenly robbed of her dinner plans, she seemed stumped for an alternative.

On the walk home through my Left Bank neighborhood, I sidestepped a restaurant that was packed both inside and at the tables set up along the sidewalk. Several people were browsing the menu, seemingly in no rush to decide what to eat for dinner. It was 9.30 p.m.

Less visible, of course, was that the pandemic has hit hardest among those lower-income Parisians cooking in the kitchen and serving tables, and whose commute often involves long train rides from peripheral suburbs.

Like countless other families around the world, mine has struggled to define how exactly to behave during the pandemic. My son, 14, returned to school on Sept. 1—masked in class—and now zips around the city on the Paris Metro, to tennis lessons and his jazz-music school. Last Saturday night, he met four friends in the old Le Marais district, where they ate falafel and then walked two miles home. With the pandemic’s second wave raging, was it a fun night out, or a life-threatening act? Without clear rules imposed upon us—like a nationwide lockdown—it has been difficult for us parents to set our own. We ultimately decided it might be his last blast of freedom, before the walls close in again.

“We are very skeptical”

For the restaurant industry, those walls feel like a catastrophe. De La Rochebrochard says his revenues so far are down more than 80% this year, from about $1.18 million in 2019, to about $234,000, but estimates that could drop to about $134,000 by the end of the year—a figure that the restaurant might not be able to survive. Will it recover in the end? I ask. “We are very skeptical,” he says.

He is hardly alone. The sense of doom among restaurateurs reached a peak on Thursday. “The government does not say they are closing restaurants, but this is the same thing,” says Christine Fabre, co-owner of five restaurants and one bar, most around the busy Montparnasse district on the Left Bank. She says half of her restaurants would likely close the whole day, while the others will attempt to survive the four-week curfew. It will not be easy. “Our rush is between 9 and 11 p.m.,” she says.

De La Rochebrochard says he does not know whether he can keep the old treasure, Au Vieux Paris D’Arcole, going. Generations of his extended family have run the restaurant for about 200 years.

At 67, he is getting ready to retire, and until COVID-19 hit, one of his three children had been interested in taking over the restaurant. But now, he says, “not at all.” He and his wife are weighing what to do. If their revenues plunge further, they will struggle to pay utility bills. “If someone comes to me now wanting to buy, I would sell immediately,” he says. “Many restaurants are for sale. But there are no buyers.”

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