The French government announced Thursday that face masks will become mandatory everywhere in Paris and its suburbs, including all outdoor public spaces. The heightened mask requirement comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases in France jumped to more than 5,000 in the previous 24 hours — the highest increase since the country came out of lockdown in mid-May.
The order goes into effect at 8 a.m. Friday. The Paris region is one of 21 high-risk "red zones" in France. But until now, masks were largely mandatory only inside shops and on public transportation. People were not required to wear them outdoors, except at street markets and in certain densely packed areas. The new rule means that now cyclists and scooter users will have to mask up as well.
Prime Minister Jean Castex, speaking at a press conference Thursday morning, said France had reached a critical threshold of 50 infections per 100,000 residents, a red line.
"We are in a period of epidemic growth," said Castex. "We want to do everything to avoid a new lockdown."
Castex said wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance from other people might not come naturally, but was not a burden.
"Only 20% of new cases come from clusters, and professional venues," he said. "Which means the essential transmission is by daily contact between people. I call on your [sense of] responsibility."
Castex also encouraged people to avoid family gatherings and to maintain distance, even when at home with relatives.
Castex said the country needed to act quickly, before the number of new cases multiplies exponentially.
France has ramped up its testing capacity to nearly a million tests a week, and is carrying out contact tracing and isolation of those infected. So far, the number of patients in intensive care remains low and the nation's hospitals are not in danger of being overwhelmed.
More than 30,000 people in France have died due to COVID-19, the third-highest death toll in Europe after Great Britain and Italy.
Two months of lockdown that ended in May seemed to get transmission under control, as the number of cases and deaths fell. But that control seems to be slipping, just as France is trying to reopen its economy.
French schools will be back in session starting Sept. 1, and every student is expected to show up. Teachers and students will have to wear masks throughout the day. Masks were made mandatory in all workplaces last week.
Marites David, a 46-year-old chef and housekeeper in Paris, knows the new rule is a good thing, but says it will be hard for her. She has asthma, so she is particularly careful to wear her mask while shopping and during her daily commute. She's worried about having to wear a mask all the time now.
"This changes everything," she says. "It was already difficult taking the bus and going to the store, but when I was walking down the street, I could take it off and breathe."
Philippe Goujon, the mayor of Paris' 15th arrondissement, welcomed the new measure.
"Before, there were certain streets in the city where you were supposed to wear a mask — it was a patchwork of rules. At least now it's clear," he told Franceinfo radio. "It's about time."