Paris cafés open terraces early to the joy of customers

David Chazan
Diners gather at a cafe in Montmarte in anticipation of the formal reopening of French cafes on June 2 - ALAIN JOCARD/AFP

They are among the most romantic and iconic sights of Paris: café terraces thronged with couples, friends deep in conversation or solitary people-watchers sipping coffee or wine.

Some cafés reopened their terraces this weekend, although this only becomes legal from Tuesday. After being deprived of café society for more than two months, many were delighted to indulge once again in a rite of the Parisian spring.

From Montmartre to the Marais, pavement terraces sprang back to life as people emerged from the cocoon of lockdown. Their eagerness to enjoy a drink on a terrace was matched by the impatience of café owners to resuscitate their moribund businesses.

One customer, François, 25, said: “We’re taking a risk, not a health risk but a legal one. If the cops come, the café owners are going to have problems.”

Initially, police appeared to turn a blind eye to the rule-breaking. At one terrace on a narrow street in the historic Marais quarter, a police car slowed momentarily as it passed a stretch of pavement where some two dozen people were sitting at tables, but quickly resumed its journey at normal speed.

This laissez-faire approach was not shared by police chiefs, who soon tweeted a warning that officers must enforce the rules with “vigilance and firmness”. A number of cafés were fined and forced to close.

“It’s a shame that the police are clamping down,” said Marie, 32, ensconced on a terrace in the 19th arrondissement with her dog and a friend. “We’ve been following the rules, cooped up at home for two-and-a-half months, and it feels so good to be able to come out for a drink. I don’t see what the big deal is if café terraces open now or on Tuesday.”

Many customers pulled their face-masks under their chins to sip drinks or chat with friends. Some wore transparent plastic visors, which they pulled up over their heads like futuristic bonnets, more space age than Parisian chic.

Although cafés, bars and restaurants across France can reopen from Tuesday, in Paris they will only be allowed to serve customers at outdoor terraces, because of the higher risk of infection in the crowded capital. In most of the rest of the country, customers will be allowed inside. If the spread of the virus continues to slow, bars and restaurants in Paris  should be able to reopen fully from June 22.

Despite the renewed joie de vivre, a row is brewing over a decision by the mayor of Paris to let cafés extend their terraces to make it easier to socially distance.

Waiters prepare tables on the terrace at a Parisian cafe, with each table placed apart in accordance with social distancing guidelines - Christophe Ena/AP

Pavement terraces are a constant source of friction between café owners and Paris residents, who often complain that they cause noise and leave too little space for walking.

But Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor, has decided that cafés must be prioritised for now. Some two dozen streets may be temporarily pedestrianised to allow space for terraces. “Hundreds of jobs are at stake,” Ms Hidalgo said. “I’m delighted that we’re returning to normal life.”

But Delphine Bürkli, the conservative mayor of the city’s 9th arrondissement, said Ms Hidalgo should supervise the extension of outdoor café areas more strictly. “Paris must not be allowed to turn into a giant noisy terrace.”