French people head back to their beloved cafes and restaurants Tuesday after weeks cooped up in coronavirus confinement, marking a further step towards normality.
As thousands thronged parks and gardens reopened over the weekend, eating and drinking establishments prepared to welcome back customers in the second phase of a step-by-step lifting of lockdown.
"We have spent several hours cleaning," said Theo Stuzmann, head waiter of the renowned Maison Kammerzell restaurant in Strasbourg, eastern France.
And a second, more thorough disinfection was due before they opened on Tuesday, he told AFP.
"Optimism reigns today," said Herve Becam of the UMIH hospitality union, welcoming the return of reservations.
French people can again "live a life which is almost normal," said Prime Minister Edouard Philippe last week, as he announced the reopenings.
But in Paris, where the coronavirus remains more active than in the rest of mainland France, cafes, bars and restaurants will be limited to outside terraces.
To cater for the expected rush back to the city's eateries, the city council gave special permission for tables to be placed on sidewalks, parking spots and other public places. Several roads will also be closed to car traffic.
The government credits France's strict lockdown, which lasted from March 17 to May 11, with saving thousands of lives by relieving pressure on hospitals, but is eager to restart an economy devastated by the measures.
- Hours cleaning -
The country, which has suffered nearly 29,000 deaths, also faces an "historic recession", says Philippe, and a sharp rise in unemployment claims.
The spread of the virus appears to be under control in most of France, designated "green zones'.
But the Paris Ile-de-France region and the overseas territories of Guiana and Mayotte, still in the higher-risk "orange" category, face a slower easing of the lockdown restrictions.
Across the country, public gatherings of more than 10 people are still banned until June 21. And people still have to wear masks in public transport, stations and airports.
People can dine together in restaurants in groups of no more than 10, but with a minimum one-metre (3.3 foot) distance between tables.
But all beaches can reopen from Tuesday, and weddings can once again be celebrated.
Primary and middle schools will open countrywide, as well as high schools in green zones -- but progressively and with a limited number of pupils per class.
Epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet, a member of the scientific council advising the government, struck a note of caution.
"Every day, there are five new (outbreak) clusters... we have had more than 100 clusters declared since May 11, so we can see that the virus is still present," he warned on BFMTV.
France's StopCovid mobile app, that will alert users if they have been in close proximity of someone tested positive, will also come into use on Tuesday.
© 2020 AFP