France is considering whether to make face-masks compulsory in shared workplaces such as open-plan offices, factories and conference rooms as it struggles to stem a spike in coronavirus infections.
The health authorities reported another record surge in new infections over the weekend, with 3,310 on Saturday. The numbers of coronavirus patients in French hospitals and in intensive care remain relatively low. But the government fears the epidemic may spiral out of control as the French return to the cities from summer holidays across the country.
Up to a third of clusters of new cases have been linked to private-sector workplaces.
Elisabeth Borne, the employment minister, is to discuss the proposal with employers and union leaders on Tuesday.
She said scientists unanimously recommended wearing masks “when several people are in a confined space.” They will only be compulsory in individual offices when more than one person is present.
The government is also considering strengthening other workplace precautions such as plastic dividers for open-plan offices. “Taking into account what we have observed in workplace clusters, additional precautions are sometimes worth taking,” Ms Borne said.
She said employers who place seasonal workers such as hotel staff or fruit pickers in shared accommodation may be asked to do more to ensure that social distancing is maintained and masks are worn.
Face-masks are already compulsory in indoor public spaces, but doctors and the government’s scientific advisors have lobbied for the rule to be extended to private companies. Many French cities have made them mandatory in crowded areas.
Despite the rise in new cases, the latest figures show only 29 new admissions to hospital and nine more intensive care patients. France now has 4,857 Covid-19 cases in hospitals, including 376 in intensive care.
Many of the new cases are younger people under 45 who tend not to have symptoms.
French government messages urging people to follow the rules in order to avert the need for a second lockdown may have backfired. According to public health experts, the warnings may have unintentionally encouraged the young to view the summer as a window of opportunity for fun before another lockdown.
The young have been blamed for fuelling France’s alarming spike in new infections by holding beach parties and packing into bars without maintaining social distancing or wearing face-masks.
“The strategy of fear doesn’t work,” said François Alla, professor of public health at the main Bordeaux teaching hospital.
Many people feel they did their bit to check the spread of the virus during lockdown and are now entitled to socialise.
“It’s like stuffing yourself with a dessert crammed with calories after an ultra-low calorie fish main course,” said Angela Sutan, professor of behavioural and experimental economics at the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon.