France announces soft new virus restrictions in Paris region

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French President Emmanuel Macron, French Health Minister Olivier Veran, right, and Chief of Intensive Care Unit Dr. Jan Hayon listen to staff working in the intensive care ward of the Poissy/Saint-Germain-en-Laye hospital, near Paris, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. With the virus rebounding from Paris to Budapest and beyond, European governments that rushed to suspend use of AstraZeneca vaccines after reports of blood clots are realizing the far-reaching impact of the move. (Yoan Valat, Pool via AP)

PARIS – The French government backed off Thursday from ordering a tough lockdown for Paris and several other regions despite an increasingly alarming situation at hospitals with a rise in the numbers of COVID-19 patients. Instead, the prime minister announced a patchwork of new restrictions while reducing the national curfew by one hour.

Getting large doses of fresh air is being encouraged, meaning that people living in the Paris region and in the north of the country can walk as long as they like in a day, but within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of their homes and with a paper authorizing the stroll.

Stores, however, will feel the pinch with all non-essential outlets — but not bookshops — closing down. And travel between regions is forbidden without a compelling reason.

Nothing will change at schools, which are to remain open, but sports activities will now be allowed.

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the new rules, which will take effect as of midnight Friday and last for at least four weeks. He referred to “massive new measures” to “slow down (the virus) without locking down people.”

“I also know the deep wish of many of you to enjoy the outdoors, since the crisis has gone on for one year and Spring is coming,” Castex said.

He also announced that the French would be able to get inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine starting Friday afternoon — and that he himself will be getting a shot “to show we can have complete confidence." Castex is making for himself an exception to the age rule, moving to the front of the line of those awaiting vaccinations, currently reserved for people 75 and older or with serious health concerns.

France and some other countries briefly suspended use of the vaccine over fears of blood clots, and are resuming it after the European Medicines Agency gave its green light earlier Thursday.