The French are heading into a long holiday weekend with sunny, blue skies and the promise of some newfound freedoms. Starting June 2, for the first time since the country was put under lockdown in mid-March, people will be able to travel more than 60 miles from their homes, parks will open and restaurants, cafes and bars will be allowed to serve food and drinks again to customers onsite.
"It will be so nice to be able to go lie on the grass in a park and have a picnic or to sit at a sidewalk cafe again," says Suzanne Helous, sitting on the cobblestones near the Seine River with friends. The banks of the Seine have become Paris' new happy hour spot most evenings.
In a speech on Thursday, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said the country is entering phase two of lifting its lockdown, and the government will be removing more and more confinement measures because the situation is evolving positively since the lockdown ended on May 11.
France has confirmed 183,275 COVID-19 cases and more than 28,600 deaths. Since the lockdown's end, there has been a significant and steady decline in hospitalizations.
Philippe said the government and France's scientific council looked at three factors in making their decision to begin lifting pandemic restrictions: the circulation of the coronavirus, the number of available intensive care unit beds and whether testing capacity could keep up with new clusters of infection.
"We are at an even better place than we thought we would be at the end of May," he said, acknowledging the efforts of health workers and ordinary citizens. "It doesn't mean the virus is gone. It's present to varying degrees across France. But its propagation rate is under control now. This is very good news."
When restaurants, cafes and bars reopen Tuesday, there will be restrictions. Tables must be spaced at least three feet apart and employees and diners (when leaving their tables) will have to wear face masks.
In Paris — where the risk of virus spreading remains higher than elsewhere in France — restaurants will limit service to outdoor seating until June 22.
After that, there will be another assessment — and if all goes as planned, France will move into phase three of reopening, with swimming pools, gyms and movie theaters back in business.
There's still plenty to worry about. The prime minister warned in his remarks of the economic crisis that will follow the health crisis.
"It will be brutal," he said. "And this is only the beginning."
But as this weekend starts, the French are breathing a sigh of relief and relishing the prospect of their new freedom.