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What it's like to visit Paris right now

Paris (CNN) — A garden pail filled with disposable hand wipes and huge bottles of hand sanitizer can be found atop every table at Paris bistro Chez L’Ami Jean.

At the entrance of luxury department store Galeries Lafayette, security guards who double as hygiene inspectors pump generous dollops of sanitizer into the palms of shoppers’ outstretched hands.

Along one of the busiest traffic arteries of the French capital, cars and scooters have been replaced by a steady convoy of cycling commuters some in suits, some in skirts — who pedal beside one another in an orderly, but hurried fashion.

And finally, on Thursday, the iron steps of the Eiffel Tower began to clang once again to the footfalls of visitors willing to climb up for a view over the city while the elevators remain out of action.

Welcome to post-lockdown Paris, where the new normal is characterized by face masks, floor markings, plexiglass, and hand sanitizer. And lots of it.

While the city has been gradually reopening as of June 2, most notably allowing residents to return to city parks and leave the house freely (they previously had to fill out forms justifying their outings), as of June 15, restaurants and cafés were allowed to reopen in Paris, in the clearest and loudest sign that the lockdown was finally over.

Reinventing restaurants

Paris reopening

Chez L’Ami Jean has reopened in Paris with new outdoor seatings on a sidewalk.

Vivian Song

Because without the hum of its cafés, outdoor patios, bistros and bars, Paris is a strange city indeed.

At Chez L’Ami Jean, located in the 7th arrondissement, chef Stéphane Jégo has stripped the restaurant of its banquette seating and scrupulously spaced out the dining tables to meet the three-foot physical distancing rule in France.

To make up for the loss of half of the 55 seats in the dining room, the chef has created an outdoor patio in spots normally reserved for street parking.

It’s a major change for the bistro, popular among both tourists and locals due to its family-style dining, where parties are squeezed next to one another and the atmosphere is noisy, lively and merry.

To preserve the ambience, Jégo was forced to rethink the layout of the restaurant he’s helmed over the last 17 years.

He quickly came up with a concept that takes the bistro back to its original roots, when it sold coffee, wine and sandwiches alongside newspapers and produce to the neighborhood locals nearly a century ago.

The reinvented restaurant now features a small garden market in the front window that sells local produce — cherries, heirloom carrots and tomatoes — along with housemade paté and terrines.

To draw in the after work and apéro crowd, bar stools, high tables and a tapas bar have been set up at the front of the bistro, while a separate space inside sells a selection of the chef’s favorite wines.

In a bid to make Chez L’Ami Jean more accessible, only a few reservations will be accepted at a time, according to the chef.

Absence of tourists

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“We wanted to give people back a sense of intimacy and closeness and conviviality at the restaurant,” chef Stephane Jego of Chez L’Ami says.

Vivian Song

“Given that this famous virus cut us off from one another, we wanted to give people back a sense of intimacy and closeness and conviviality at the restaurant,” he said.

It’s a business strategy aimed at diversifying the restaurant, but also at drawing in more local Parisians to make up for the lack of tourists, who accounted for half of his regular clientele.

While travel between Schengen countries in Europe has reopened, and international travel from outside the Schengen area will be allowed to resume for select countries as of July 1, it will be a while before travel resumes to pre-Covid-19 levels.
Last year, the city hosted 38 million visitors, with US and British tourists leading the international markets: American visitors accounted for 2.56 million hotel arrivals in 2019.

Witnessing Paris without tourists has provided some locals with an understanding of how much international visitors contribute to the city’s energy and ambience.

Restaurants in Paris are scrambling to reopen after French President Emmanuel Macron declared the first wave of the coronavirus crisis over.

During a recent visit to the Montmartre area, Parisian Huguette Dauria, 77, said she was struck by the emptiness of the streets.

“All the stores were shut and Montmartre was empty. It was strange to see. The city is really quiet. Tourists help bring the city to life,” said the retiree.

Parisian museum worker Patricia Servain, 40, agrees.

“It’s nice because there’s more space, but Paris has lost its cosmopolitan vibe. I miss hearing different languages. If it continues like this, it will be strange.”

Though the city has reopened, Dauria said she’s dismayed to see some of her fellow Parisians flouting social distancing rules and not wearing masks.

The World Health Organization recommends that masks be worn in public spaces when physical distancing is not possible. But it appears Parisians have been quick to ditch face coverings out on the streets, where they’re not mandatory, now that the city has reopened.

“It seems like people don’t really understand what just happened,” said Dauria.

“We need to be on our guard to prevent a second wave. But people are walking around without masks, gathering in big groups… It’s not right.”

Dauria’s husband Daniel disapprovingly notes that everything has gone back to the way it was before.

“It’s like we just woke up from a dream and none of this happened.”

For her part, Servain said she’s become more of a homebody since the lockdown and avoids densely crowded areas.

“The virus has led us to think about things differently,” adds Jégo.

From shopping, public transportation and museum visits, here’s what the new normal will look like in the French capital, until a vaccine or treatment is found:

Public transport

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Some streets are turned into temporary bike lanes as an alternative to public transportation.

Vivian Song

The result? It’s as though someone dialed down the volume on the cacophony of honking horns and roaring engines across the city, a welcome respite for the nerves.

Men in suits, their blazers flapping behind them in the wind, pedal alongside women in spring skirts and flats, students, and bike couriers.

Dispensers filled with hand sanitizer have also been installed at selected bus shelters and masks are mandatory on all public transport and in taxis.

There are also stickers on the floors of trains, as well as some seats, to help people passengers to social distance where possible.

Shopping

Paris reopening

Many shops and department stores require all shoppers to wear masks.

Vivian Song

Though masks are not mandatory in public spaces, many private shops, boutiques and major department stores require all shoppers to wear them throughout their visit.

Shoppers are invited to disinfect their hands with hand sanitizer placed at shop entrances, and at some boutiques, customers are asked to refrain from touching and handling the merchandise.

That means not being able to swatch lipsticks or creams at the beauty counter or inspect household decor items up close. Shoppers are also reminded to keep their distance from one another — at least three steps apart on the escalator at Galeries Lafayette — and plexiglass separates them from the sales associates at the cash desk.

Museums and landmarks

The Eiffel Tower reopened on June 25.

The Eiffel Tower reopened on June 25.

THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

No more crowding of the Mona Lisa. At the Louvre, which reopens July 6, visitors must purchase advance tickets online and commit to a time slot, akin to an appointment or movie time, to help with crowd control.

Visitors also have to follow a designated path to popular paintings and exhibits, namely the Mona Lisa, to help ease congestion. Same-day, on-site tickets will be sold based on availability, but priority will be given to online ticket holders.

Likewise, visitors must purchase advance online tickets for the Musée d’Orsay and the Palace of Versailles.

The opening of the Eiffel Tower on June 25 is being implemented in phases, with access limited to stairs at first, before elevator service to the second floor resumes next month.

For visits to all museums and major landmarks, masks are mandatory.

Dining out

Paris reopening

All restaurant tables must be spaced a minimum of three feet apart to allow for physical distancing.

Vivian Song

One of the defining characteristics of the Parisian bistro and café scene is the way tables are placed side by side, nearly flush next to each other.

Taking a seat requires pulling the table out from its line formation and carefully squeezing your way between the two tables and into your chair.

But not anymore. The Covid-19 directive in France now requires that tables be spaced a minimum of three feet apart for physical distancing.

To help offset the loss of tables, the city has been handing out permits that allow restaurateurs to turn street parking and sidewalks into what Jégo calls “bistrotrottoirs” or sidewalk bistros.

Meanwhile, inside, all staff must wear masks, and diners are also required to don masks when going to the toilets or walking through the dining room.

Seatings are limited to parties of 10 or less. Some restaurateurs have also introduced QR code menus that can be activated by smartphones to eliminate paper menus, while contactless payment is favored over cash.

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