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This past Friday I wrote the following reflection on how Marseille is coping with the coronavirus crisis: “Marseille’s most visited monument, Notre Dame de la Garde, hasn’t seen a decline in visitors to her golden beacon. At La Samaritaine, the iconic Vieux Port café, locals pack the terrace to soak up the sun. And, when taking public transit, I rarely spot a face mask. Unlike the empty piazzas in Milan and the masked subway riders in NYC, it’s been smooth sailing in this port city.”

That was clearly the calm before the Covid-19 storm.

In the 48 hours since I penned that first paragraph, France has shut down nationwide in response to the skyrocketing number of cases. The second-worst affected country in Europe (4,500 cases and 91 deaths as of March 15) has entered “stage 3” – the official designation of an epidemic. After President Macron closed schools until further notice during his Thursday speech to the hexagone, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced on Saturday night that all bars, restaurants, movie theaters and non-essential businesses would immediately shut down. “We saw too many people in cafés,” he gravely declared, imploring the French to “be more disciplined” and “stay home.”

In Marseille, some restaurants had already taken preventive measures. Tao Wang, the owner of the popular Shanghai Kitchen, self-quarantined and temporarily closed his Vieux Port restaurant after a trip to China during the virus’ initial outbreak. To supplement the hygienic glove-wearing policy already in place, Noailles pizza stand Pizza Charly had hand sanitizers at every entrance for its workers. “I was hesitant to put my employees in masks to not scare clients away,” said the owner, Charly, especially due to the downturn in business these past few weeks.

But after Philippe’s decree, Marseille’s 7,000 eateries, cafés and bars have shut off their stoves, unplugged their espresso machines and dimmed their lights. On Saturday night, locals downed their last public pints at Vieux-Port pubs before the midnight closure. A reporter from the regional rag, La Provence, covered the final festivities, observing young customers “less than a meter away, as if coronavirus wasn’t on the menu that night.” The article also shared the annoyance of bar owners. One thought it would have been better to “put better detection systems at airports” while another wished the government had been more up front rather than springing this last-minute closure on them.

Their frustration stems from the fact that Marseille hasn’t yet been hit hard by the epidemic. Bouches-du-Rhône, the department, or administrative region, where the city is located, currently has 67 cases, and the city’s first Covid-19 patient has fully recovered. Before the #resterchezvous (stay in) hashtag, Marseillais were still clinking glasses at apéros these past weeks. Some hosts provided plates to prevent guests from double dipping in the tapenade. Others just let us dig in and share, with people even swapping bises – the customary cheek kiss greeting in France that is now an absolute no-no.

I’m curious about how the sociable Marseillais will cope if the coronavirus spikes. I’d like to think we’d take a page from the past – as witnessed in this article about Marseille’s fascinating history in fighting epidemics. Throughout its 2,600 years, the thriving Mediterranean port has been exposed to widespread disease from Asia and Africa. Ships carrying passengers infected with cholera and the plague prompted the city to enact early quarantine measures and create specialized hospitals (lazarets) to keep the sick contained.

Marseille gave other European cities a game plan for prevention and disease control. Its history with epidemics is so deep they even inspired two of the city’s most famous paintings. Michel Serre’s tableaux de la peste at the Musée des Beaux-Arts are so lifelike scientists have used them to study the effects of the bubonic plague. I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a coincidence that Marseille’s most famous export, savon de Marseille soap, happens to be one of the best disease-fighters around.

Editor’s note: With the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis rapidly and profoundly impacting many of the cities we work in, we’ve asked some of our correspondents to file dispatches detailing how they and the places they live in are coping with this new reality. Our second report is from Marseille, which – like the rest of France – was almost completely shut down this past weekend in response to the skyrocketing number of cases.

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Published on March 16, 2020

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