Paris without its cafes? Virus shutdown hits France's core

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A man sits outside the closed famed Les Deux Magots cafe Sunday March 15, 2020 in Paris. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that France is shutting down all restaurants, cafes, cinemas and non-essential retail shops, starting Sunday, to combat the accelerated spread of the virus in the country. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

PARIS – What's it like in France after government orders restaurants and bistros to close to contain the spreading coronavirus?

Eerily quiet. No one drinking coffee in sidewalk cafes. A punch in the gut to France's well-known joie de vivre.

Paris is “like a horse without a rider,” said Mohamed Fatnassi, the man in charge of evening service at the famed Closerie des Lilas bar and restaurant.

He spoke early Sunday, just after the ban came into effect. By then, the Left Bank restaurant and bar had emptied, for who knows how long. The abrupt closure order from the prime minister came in the midst of France's dinner hour Saturday night: all eateries should shut at midnight, indefinitely.

"This is an institution ... Everyone has been through here,” Fatnassi said, citing Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and even Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, who lived in exile in a nearby district.

Cafes and eateries have been an essential part of the fabric of social life in France since the first cafe appeared in 17th-century Paris. Today, in villages, the local cafe is often the only place to come together with neighbors. They're so essential to social cohesion that the French government has launched a plan to ensure they survive.

By Sunday morning, the sidewalk cafes once synonymous with France stood barren. Stacks of chairs looked forlorn, absent of tourists and gossiping locals. At the historic Dome fish restaurant and cafe, a sober sign was taped to the brass-trimmed door: “Exceptional closing due to COVID-19."

Some restaurants had takeout signs on their doors as carrying away food is still allowed. But the usually bustling Montparnasse tourist haunt was eerily quiet.