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All Workers In France Must Wear Masks Starting Sept. 1

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Starting September 1, employees of French companies will have to wear masks at work. The government-mandated that as the coronavirus spreads more rapidly in France. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: France came out of two months of strict lockdown in mid-May and seemed to have a grip on the coronavirus. But since July, cases have been rising. There were 3,000 new cases on two consecutive days recently. A quarter of the thousand new clusters have been traced to workplaces. So on Tuesday, government and health officials huddled with union leaders and company heads to see what could be done. Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne announced new protocols.

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ELISABETH BORNE: (Through interpreter) We have a health situation that's deteriorating, and the numbers are worrying. In this context, it's important to adopt company rules. Masks will now be required in all shared and open spaces.

BEARDSLEY: France has already made mask-wearing mandatory on public transport and in stores but had left their use in offices to the discretion of employers. In a recent open letter, medical experts compared the health risk of the virus accumulating in the air of enclosed rooms to secondhand cigarette smoke and urged the government to take action. Dr. Frederic Adnet is head of emergency services at a major hospital in the Paris suburbs.

FREDERIC ADNET: (Through interpreter) The danger of not acting was to find ourselves in a situation like last March and April where the virus was spreading so fast it threatened our hospital structures.

BEARDSLEY: Adnet says, last spring, France had 7,000 patients in ICU. Today, it's fewer than 400. But the virus is spreading. Other clusters have been traced to family gatherings and summer events.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Catchy TV and radio public health announcements like this one featuring teenagers on a beach air-kissing from 6 feet away remind people to keep up their guard. But there is much uneasiness as vacationers will soon return to cities and head back indoors to work and school.

ERIC COMB: I think fall and winter time are going to be a very difficult time.

BEARDSLEY: That's Dr. Eric Comb, infectious disease specialist at Paris hospital Pitie-Salpetriere. He says one good thing is that prevention efforts are getting better by the week.

COMB: If people wear the mask regularly and if we are able to test trace on easily infected people appropriately, then I think there will be no second wave.

BEARDSLEY: France is currently carrying out 625,000 tests a week with plans to ramp it up to 700,000. Many cities have also made masks mandatory in certain streets and outdoor spaces.

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BEARDSLEY: Like the banks of the Seine River in Paris, where Sabrina Duba is strolling with a friend. She says she's already wearing a mask at work as well.

SABRINA DUBA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Sure, it's annoying but it doesn't really keep me from living my life," she says. "We lost so many people, and the confinement was so horrible, I'd rather just wear the mask." Dr. Adnet says the virus may be spreading again, but this time it's meeting a prepared and knowledgeable population. He says that will make all the difference. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "CAROUSEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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