Coronavirus: We’re not virus police, French cafes say of new COVID-19 pass

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PARIS —
French restaurant owners and workers are as worried as anyone about the coronavirus — but they’re also concerned that new mandatory COVID-19 passes will turn them into virus police instead of purveyors of culinary pleasures.

Starting next month, all diners in France must show a pass proving they’re fully vaccinated, or recently tested negative or recovered from the virus. For restaurants — seen as the lifeblood of France — the new rule presents yet another headache after a punishing pandemic.

“Our job used to be to make sure that our guests had a great time while they were with us. Now, we spend our time reprimanding them. We weren’t trained for this,” said Louis le Mahieu, manager of the Parisian restaurant Les Bancs Publics.

Les Bancs Publics sits on a street corner on the canal that wends through northeast Paris, a neighbourhood popular with young people who gather in its many cafes or on the banks of the canal, drinking and listening to music. Vivid street art livens the neighbourhood, and there is a pop-up vaccination booking space nearby, next to Paris Plage, the city’s yearly summer urban beach project.

Like other restaurants in the bustling area, Le Bancs Publics is already struggling to respect France’s oft-changing virus rules. It’s one of hundreds of Paris venues shut down for not respecting limits on visitors since French restaurants reopened in May for the first time in nearly seven months. So its brightly coloured metal shutters are drawn and no diners are in sight.

Cafe and bar owners worry they’ll face more such trouble when the COVID-19 pass becomes obligatory.

A draft law preparing the COVID-19 pass requirement for restaurants, shopping malls, hospitals, trains and planes foresees fines of 45,000 euros (US$53,250) for violations – which could be fatal to small businesses that are already struggling economically after pandemic losses.

For Gauthier Max, owner of nearby Mama Kin, restaurants and bars are no longer places of leisure but have become spaces of constraints and restrictions. “We’ve effectively become policemen,” he said.

A diverse crowd of customers would usually be standing outside Mama Kin with drinks and cigarettes and socializing inside, but it too was shut down temporarily this week for virus violations.

A collective of angry restaurant owners is scheduled to meet Thursday with the area police chief to discuss the virus challenges and try to find solutions, Max said.

Unions have pushed back at the new pass requirement, as did protesters at demonstrations in Paris and other cities around France on Wednesday. Tourists are also confused about how they can get the COVID-19 passes before they come into effect next month; the government promises answers soon.

Citing resurgent infections across the country, President Emmanuel Macron and his government say the COVID-19 passes are the only way to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed again — and to avoid tougher measures like new lockdowns.

With health rules changing rapidly, many restaurant owners said they struggle to keep track. Mahieu said even police officers he asks on the street don’t always know the latest regulations.

He said he would observe the new health rules, but warned they could incur new costs and lower returns.

“We’ll likely need one employee to be allocated to it full-time, and a security guard to manage disgruntled people whom we’ll have to turn away,” he told The Associated Press. “We’ll be stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Many restaurant owners understand the need for virus control, and want to avoid even tougher measures.

“I’m very pro-vaccine and find the health pass to be a good idea and a completely reasonable measure. Other vaccines are mandatory in France today,” said Christine Boudon, owner of La Fontaine de Mars near the Eiffel Tower, one of Paris’ oldest restaurants. “However, it may be difficult for us to put in place. Checking clients’ health passes is a little bit akin to police work. Only the most senior staff here will be able to carry out this task.”

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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