Authorities in Bordeaux and Marseille have announced strict new measures to limit public gatherings in an effort to rein in a rapid surge in Covid-19 cases that risks overwhelming the two French cities’ hospitals.
“The virus has accelerated despite the obligation to wear a mask introduced earlier this summer,” Christophe Mirmand, the government’s top official in greater Marseille area, said on Monday. “We need to take action to ensure health services can cope.”
Admissions to the city’s intensive care units were following an “exponential curve” and had doubled in the past week, the head of the city’s hospital service said. Even with extra beds added over the weekend, the system was “close to saturation point”.
The director of Bordeaux’s main hospital said “all the warning signals are flashing red”. His hospital has 77 Covid patients, he said, of whom 24 are in intensive care, “a very rapid increase over the past 10 days”.
Marseille, with 195 cases per 100,00 inhabitants compared with a national average of 70, the capital, Paris, with 154, and the south-western city of Bordeaux, with 143, have emerged as France’s major virus hotspots, heightening fears of a second wave of the virus.
The announcements came after the prime minister, Jean Castex, on Friday announced no new national restrictions, instead delegating the task to regional officials and health authorities. The country was not uniformly affected and they were better placed to act, he said.
While the crisis was clearly worsening, Castex said, he would avoid a new nationwide lockdown that would again cripple the economy. France reported 10,561 new Covid-19 cases in 24 hours on Saturday, the highest number since large-scale testing began. The country’s death toll stands at nearly 31,000.
Mirmand, the regional prefect in Marseille, and his Bordeaux counterpart, Fabienne Boccio, took broadly similar steps, limiting public gatherings to 10 people or fewer including in parks, outlawing standing at bars and lowering the number of people allowed to watch sports matches and large events to 1,000 from 5,000.
All local companies must tell employees to work from home where possible, public transport providers have been asked to reorganise their services to prevent overcrowding during rush hours, and care homes visits will be drastically restricted.
All major events, such as trade fairs, are to be cancelled, dancing banned in bars or at weddings, student parties outlawed and school visits postponed. In Marseille, Mirmand also announced a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol on the street after 8pm and ordered bars and restaurants to close at 12.30am.
“Any establishment that does not comply, or fails to enforce existing hygiene and distancing requirement, will receive a warning and risk instant closure,” he said, adding that all family gatherings of more than 10 should be postponed if possible.
Boccio said that extra gendarmes and riot police units would be deployed in Bordeaux to enforce the measures, adding that the situation would be assessed in the next two or three weeks. “If we have to toughen the measures, I will,” she said.
The overseas French territory of Guadeloupe also announced new measures on Saturday, ordering bars and restaurants to close at 10pm on weeknights and midnight at the weekend. Other public buildings including swimming pools, gyms and meeting halls have been closed and the public is banned from sporting events.
Although France says it is carrying out about 1m tests a week, the increase in infections is outstripping the increase in testing. The rate of positive tests has risen to 5.4%, with the rise in new cases especially marked among young adults, many of whom show no symptoms, health experts say.
Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, has warned that the current rate of infections – growing by 30% a week, with hospital admissions increasing by 15% a week – could lead to hospital intensive care units being overwhelmed with new patients within two months.
On Sunday six specialist doctors wrote an opinion piece in the Journal du Dimanche calling on the French to act responsibly and said it was time to “signal the end of playtime”. The medics called on people to avoid private gatherings.
“Ensuring that people act responsibly is an important factor. It’s the only way to avoid the spread of the virus and stop it,” said Philippe Amouyel, the professor of public health at Lille hospital, one of the signatories.