In 2015, Parisians were called courageous. Within 48 hours of the November 13 terrorist attacks, locals returned to their neighborhood cafés and bars, resisting any infringement upon their way of life. It was a beautiful example of solidarity and cultural conviction that helped to lift us out of grief. Today, the stringent measures being enforced to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are sorely testing that same insouciance — as well as the restaurants and bars that are such an intrinsic and vital part of Parisian life.
At noon on Tuesday, March 17, the city began at least 15 days of forced confinement. The only outings permitted are for essentials, and anyone leaving their home must have a signed and dated document attesting to the purpose of being outdoors. Observing the streets from our windows feels equal parts apocalyptic and peaceful. But the shuttered storefronts and silence are a reminder of the long, difficult road ahead, specifically for the food industry. Weary bakers and supermarket staff must continue to soldier through the crisis, while restaurant owners remain mired in uncertainty about the level of government aid they can expect, let alone their chances of ever opening their doors again.
Monday’s announcement of the impending lockdown was preceded by days marked at first by defiance, then creeping dread. The warnings issued by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration were as clear as they had been in Italy: The only way to curb the virus would be through strict physical and social distancing and medical-grade hygiene practices: The customary la bise (kiss) used to greet friends needed to stop; sitting elbow-to-elbow at coffee shops and café terraces was strongly discouraged; and before long, the very prospect of dining out was eradicated. But in the absence of forced confinement, Parisians rebelled: Whether it was out of blithe indifference or a general distrust of government recommendations, few heeded the calls to stay home.
“On ne peut pas nous empêcher de vivre!” This can’t prevent us from living! I’ve heard that said countless times. In most circumstances, it’s true: One of the admirable qualities of French people as a whole is their willingness to see the necessity for celebration in everyday life. And because food and wine are an inevitable part of celebration, there is equally intrinsic support for restaurant and bar owners, many of whom become like family. Before the virus, stopping in for a quick coffee or a glass of wine and a snack had become little gestures to help the business owners who had barely survived the previous 18 months of weekly gilets jaunes demonstrations and the pension reform strikes at the end of 2019. So as the reality of the virus descended, locals wondered what to do: Was it right to let restaurants and bars languish?
In the hours following Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s announcement on Saturday, March 14, that all nonessential establishments—everything except for pharmacies, banks, supermarkets, tobacco shops, and bakeries—would close until further notice, many Parisians raced out for a final pre-confinement hurrah. “One last drink!” I heard passersby yell on my street as they ventured to any number of densely packed bars and all-day cafés. Some sat close together outdoors, clinking glasses and digging into shared plates of charcuterie and cheese, throwing their heads back in laughter as if it were their very last meal. Others gathered indoors, oblivious to (or simply ignoring) the fact that convening in their favorite hangouts was putting everyone at risk.
The first day under the new orders was only vaguely less buzzy than most Sundays: The brunch and coffee shop crowds had vanished, but weekly shoppers still swarmed open-air markets with little apparent concern for gathering in tight quarters. Bakeries, essential as they are to Parisian life, did brisk business. The most cautious of them allowed only a handful of people to enter at a time. Inside, strips of tape placed one meter apart on the ground indicated the necessary distance to respect and, for the most part, customers followed the rules.
But hints of the shutdown’s potentially catastrophic impact on the food industry could be seen on Instagram, where restaurants announced they were organizing pickups for leftover stock and ingredients. The abrupt closures gave chefs and owners little time to prepare for next steps: In his Instagram stories, Nicolas Alary of Holybelly described feeling torn between avoiding food waste and wanting to protect clients and staff from congregating outside his restaurant. “We had prepped for 600 covers, which is what we normally do between our two restaurants on a Sunday,” he said. “We don’t have the storage space for this and can only take home so much. If we had 48 hours’ notice, we would have been fine. Restaurants are big machines with lots of moving parts and inertia; it’s impossible to flick the switch off like that without consequences.”
Ultimately, Alary and his partner, chef Sarah Mouchot, decided to offload one ton of ingredients — worth approximately 10,000 euros — to clients willing to bring their own bags and containers for pickup. In exchange, they requested a small donation. Other establishments followed suit: Daroco, an Italian restaurant, carefully orchestrated a collection for the perishable products it wouldn’t be able to store; Marc Grossman of Bob’s Bake Shop left perishables and fruit outside his restaurants for passersby to take home; and Ten Belles Bread gave away sourdough starter to aspiring home breadmakers. Some establishments will be able to move to delivery to keep business running even at half-mast, but many aren’t equipped to make such a transition. Even if they were, delivery is not a long-term solution—a grim realization that restaurants in the U.S. are also facing.
By nightfall on Sunday, March 15, the frenzy in the streets had faded and neighborhoods across Paris took on an eerie, Christmas Day quiet. On Monday, the encroaching fear of a protracted ban on social outings assumed more concrete form as corner cafés, all-day brasseries, and bustling bars—the lifeblood of every arrondissement—remained shuttered. Bistro chairs and marble tables, usually set up on the sidewalk, were stacked indoors like Tetris blocks. Signs on windows indicated the sanitary precautions being taken—themselves holdovers from the pre-shutdown measures that will remain in place until the worst is over.
The shuttering of Paris’s food and wine landscape is unsettling not merely because these establishments are a source of constant, reassuring activity, but also because it is without historic precedent: Even during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the city’s restaurants didn’t go dark entirely. This is only the second time that Au Pied du Cochon, a 24/7 brasserie and a favorite among chefs for late-night meals, has closed since opening in 1947 (the first was for renovations in 1989).
In his address to the nation on Monday night, Macron insisted that no business, big or small, would be allowed to fail; labor charges and tax payments would be delayed, and other support (which is still to be defined) would be announced in the coming days. But as it stands, a health crisis of this nature isn’t covered by the insurance policies that restaurant owners have signed. Stéphane Jégo, the chef-owner of L’Ami Jean, is leading the charge to pressure the government to insist that the insurance company lobbies account for such unprecedented circumstances. “So many businesses, small and large, will be wiped off the map if nothing is done,” the chef told L’Hôtellerie Restauration. “Do we accept to die or do we fight to survive?”
Paris, much like New York, feels radically different without the bars, restaurants, and coffee shops that make it come alive. The brief, daily exchanges with bartenders and baristas are an integral part of the social fabric of our lives, and without them, we feel incomplete. But if Parisians truly care about protecting our access to such pleasures, pleasures we consider our natural rights, then we must ready ourselves for the inevitable fight to keep the industry from going under.
In a city in which dining and drinking are fundamental to the experience of both living and visiting, the fact that many beloved restaurants and cafés won’t reopen should give us pause. It should force us to consider what life in Paris would look like without its dynamic chefs and entrepreneurs, coffee roasters and bartenders. It should force us to consider our role in reviving the industry once the pandemic is firmly behind us. Because it is going to take all of us, consumers included, to rebuild the moments around the table that we hold so dear.
Lindsey Tramuta is a Paris-based writer and the author of The New Paris and The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris.