Rain, absent workers, no tourists: France braces for an uncertain reopening

May 18, 2021, 11:38 AM UTC

For weeks, the streets of Paris have resembled a sprawling construction site, with wooden platforms hammered together outside hundreds of restaurants and cafés across the city, all in preparation for one date on the calendar: May 19. From Wednesday, France’s grueling seven-month COVID-19 lockdown will begin steadily winding down with restaurant dining—outdoors for now—permitted for the first time since last October.

But while the glasses are polished and the wine cellars restocked, there is one factor that could prove disastrous even for experienced restaurant owners: Paris weather.

“We are not opening because it is raining all week long, so we cannot serve outside,” says George De La Rochebrochard, owner of Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, Paris’s oldest restaurant, which has served customers for more than 500 years, in a narrow street behind Notre-Dame Cathedral. Since Rochebrochard has room for only about 10 chairs outside his restaurant, he has opted to delay opening until June 9, when, he hopes, the sun might finally shine. And having suffered through the leanest winter in memory, a few weeks’ delay will make little difference. “We are not rich anymore,” he says.

An employee cleans the terrace of a café in Paris ahead of the reopening of outdoor dining scheduled for May 19.
Christophe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images

High stakes

The same might be said for many in France, 15 months after the pandemic hit. The country’s GDP edged up only 0.4% in the first quarter of 2021, and in the second quarter, GDP could be 4% lower than its pre-pandemic level, according to a report last week by France’s statistics agency INSEE. Compared to the U.S.’s post-pandemic boom, France is a “picture in contrasts,” it says.

Much hangs on the reopening for the French government, which has spent billions underwriting lost wages and propping up shuttered businesses, including restaurants. Now officials are hoping that as lockdown measures are slowly lifted over the next month, the stir-crazy French will inject badly needed cash into the economy, by restocking their closets (nonessential stores have been shut for months) and relishing a chance to eat at restaurants or visit museums.

There are signs that might be possible—at least to a certain extent. All tickets have been snapped up for a three-day free showing, beginning Saturday, at Paris’s newest museum, created by Kering founder François Pinault to exhibit some of his vast private art collection. And despite the rain, Parisians have rushed to book tables for Wednesday night’s restaurant reopening on the site TheFork, according to the company’s regional director Damien Rodière, who told the business daily Les Echos that bookings were being made at triple the pace in normal times—a sign that people seem braced to break out after months of lockdown. “The French really want to have fun,” he says.

As Parisians exit their third lockdown, one of the hottest tickets in the city is the opening of a new museum that houses the private collection of billionaire François Pinault.
Jeanne Frank—Bloomberg/Getty Images

But restaurants will need more than a zest for fun to recover their lost earnings.

France’s seven-month curfew remains in effect. Beginning Wednesday, closing time will change from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., but for Paris, that is still early for dining. Rodière says the restrictions could push restaurants to finally end a long-cherished Paris tradition of leaving diners to linger at tables for hours after finishing their meal. With fewer hours to serve food, restaurants will need more than one seating a night. “The challenge for restaurateurs will be to increase the rotation of their tables to meet new constraints,” he says.

Help wanted

As restaurants open, some owners say they are scrambling to find staff. “When we asked people this morning to come back to work, some of them said they were in Spain, others have new jobs,” says Christine Fabre, who owns five Paris restaurants with her husband, Joel. “About 20% will not come back at all.” Fabre says she will reopen only three restaurants for now. She says “the others are too small; it is not worth opening.”

And when Paris’s restaurants finally reopen for indoor dining, they might not resemble what they were before. De La Rochebrochard says that once he reopens Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, the city’s oldest restaurant, on June 9—a date the government has said it will begin allowing indoor dining—his menu will be a stripped-down, lower-cost version of the previous French cuisine on offer before the pandemic, with a flat-rate €20 ($25) lunch and €30 ($38) dinner.

The reason: Tourists have yet to return to Paris. About 2.2 million American tourists visited the French capital in 2019—the biggest number of foreign visitors—and reliably flocked to Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole. They have been blocked from entering European Union countries for the past year.

President Emmanuel Macron said last month that France would welcome vaccinated Americans from early June, but has yet to announce specific measures to allow Americans to plan summer vacations in France.

For Paris restaurants, their absence is painful. “We will only have French consumers, and they are not rich,” De La Rochebrochard says, explaining why he chose to change his restaurant’s menu for the reopening. “They are not Americans—hah. The French, they all go to Burger King.”

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