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Paris awakens slowly after 2-month slumber to world it lost

PARIS – After a two-month freeze, Paris slowly awakened on Monday to the world it had lost under lockdown as hairdressers, florists, nail salons and some other businesses reopened - but under mandatory social distancing requirements.

Like a just-awakened sleeping beauty, the City of Light needed to rub its eyes on the first day of relaxed home confinement rules. Shopkeepers trying to recover losses may need to wait days for Parisians to rediscover the daily habits from before the coronavirus halted most public life.

“It’s a bit an act of faith today,” said Edouard Lefebvre, who heads the business district on the Champs-Elysees Avenue, packed with crowds of locals and foreign tourists in normal times.

Only half of the avenue’s shops were open Monday, Lefebvre said, reflecting the extensive preparations needed to safely receive customers and the hesitant steps many people took toward pre-pandemic routines.

“Clients won’t come back in day one. It takes time to get used to coming back to the Champs-Elysees, to come back to Paris,” Lefebvre said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Vehicles began filling streets again, but there were no traffic jams reported, and numerous people used bicycles to get around.

Restaurants and bars - at the heart of France's proverbial joie de vivre - are still waiting to learn when they will be back in business and cafe life can resume under the French government’s phased-in lifting of restrictions it imposed to stem the country's coronavirus outbreak.

Some Parisians couldn't resist the temptations of their newly-recovered freedom, and conviviality was accompanied by wine or beer. As the sun set over the picturesque Canal Saint Martin, youths gathered for conversation, standing shoulder-to-shoulder or sitting knee-to-knee on the ground, — until police moved in with a megaphone to disburse the crowd. The Paris police chief later issued a ban on consumption of alcoholic drinks along the banks of the Seine river, saying he “deplored” having to take action to ensure distancing on the first day of de-confinement.

France was hit hard by COVID-19, recording more than 26,600 virus-related deaths as of Monday night. The virus still is circulating. Authorities, trying to strike a balance between public health and boosting the economy as cases plateaued, reopened numerous sectors around the country. They will reassess the situation in three weeks, wary of a second wave.

Parisians grown used to hearing birds and smelling clean air from windows during lockdown may find some aspects of deconfinement unpleasant, like motorists honking their horns and the heavy equipment at the capital’s thousands of construction sites, a source of inconvenient detours and noise that drowns out the sounds of nature.

A construction worker on a Left Bank residential project that's been in the works for two years said it was a pleasure to be back on the job after a period of home confinement that got a bit long. To guard against exposure to the virus, masks are obligatory for workers, hand sanitizer dispensers are in place around the huge site, and crews use one-way routes to move from floor to floor to maintain social distancing.

Parisians donned heavy coats against a blustering wind and colder weather to stroll through their neighborhoods without the permission slips they needed to venture out for just a few permitted purposes: food shopping, short jogs and imperative business.

Now, the French can travel legally within a radius of 100 kilometers (60 miles) from their homes.

For many shopkeepers, survival may depend on quickly enchanting everyone again, a special challenge with distancing rules that keep some waiting at the door to enter.

“It will be a return, but slowly,” said florist Iswar Boodhoo whose shop is located on a strategic corner of the Montparnasse area, a Left Bank entertainment haunt.

“People haven’t been working. They have lots of problems and flowers are a luxury,” he said.

Lefebvre, of the Champs-Elysees business district, bemoaned what he said has been an 18-month-long economic “disaster” for Paris, from the weekly demonstrations by yellow vests movement protesters, to a major transportation strike over pension reform and then the coronavirus crisis.

“Despite this, we are opening full of hope, even if it will take a long time to reconquer," he said. "It’s important for a city like Paris to live again.”

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Masha Macpherson in Paris contributed.