Cold comfort: France to ban heated terraces, but not this winter

The terrace at Les Deux Magots, which uses overhead heating, in Paris on Feb. 24, 2020.

By Constant Méheut

France will ban heaters used by cafes and restaurants on outdoor terraces as part of a package of measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption, the French ecology minister said on Monday.

The French government’s announcement came at a difficult time for cafe and restaurant owners hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many largely relying on outdoor dining to comply with social distancing rules.

In an attempt to give businesses time to continue in their recovery and adapt to the new law, the ban will not go into effect this winter, when many experts expect a resurgence of the virus.

In a country famous for its terrace culture, heat lamps running on electricity or gas have flooded outdoor terraces for over a decade, making sitting outside in cold weather not only possible but comfortable. In Paris alone, some 70% of cafe terraces are estimated to have heating devices.

Now, though, France is looking to accelerate its fight against climate change, and energy hungry heaters are increasingly seen as anachronistic.

Several cities in France banned outdoor heaters in recent months and calls to follow suit in Paris gained traction in the run-up to the municipal elections in March.

“It’s about ending practices that are ecological aberrations and that lead to totally unjustified energy consumption,” France’s new ecology minister, Barbara Pompili, said after meeting with President Emmanuel Macron’s environmental defense council on Monday.

“It is not possible to heat terraces at full capacity in the depths of winter when it is zero degrees for the sheer pleasure of drinking your coffee on a terrace while being warm,” she added.

Even before the pandemic, the country’s cafes and restaurants were suffering a drop in business because of monthlong strikes that kept many people off the street.

Then they were forced to shut their doors for 11 weeks as the nation locked down to slow the spread of the virus.

“Restaurant owners were already down on their knees,” said Marcel Benezet, a representative of the GNI-HCR, the country’s main union for cafes, hotels and restaurants. “Now, with this ban, the government is giving us a second sledgehammer blow.”

Benezet said that as the reopening of cafes and restaurants came with new health restrictions limiting attendance in enclosed areas, outdoor terraces had become the only place where “you can make a little money.”

Many cities across France have allowed cafes and restaurants to extend their outdoor terraces into areas normally reserved for pedestrians in order to compensate for the loss of income resulting from social distancing rules imposed on these businesses.

In Paris, with some 17,000 cafe terraces, dozens of cobblestone streets are now buzzing with customers sometimes sitting right in the middle of the street, as they enjoy their apéros, a pre-dinner drinking tradition that the pandemic had all but extinguished.

Despite the government delaying the ban until next spring, Benezet said that since no one knew how long the epidemic would last, it could come into force at a time when outdoor seating is still needed to mitigate the economic effects of social distancing rules.

France, like other European countries, is facing a slow but worrisome resurgence of the epidemic. There were about 800 new cases a day on average over the last two weeks, compared with 500 a day the previous week, with authorities reporting about 100 active clusters of the virus, which officials fear could foster a second wave of infections nationally.

“We need more time to adapt ourselves,” Benezet said. “We should not be sacrificed in the name of ecology.”

The ban is part of a series of environmental measures to be introduced in the coming months, such as encouraging building owners to improve insulation and prohibiting them from installing coal or fuel oil furnaces in new homes.

Some measures, including the ban on heated terraces, are a direct result of proposals from a Citizen’s Convention on Climate that Macron set up after the Yellow Vest protests in 2019, in a bid to balance economic policies with long-term environmental objectives.

In late June, just after the Green party won a landslide victory in the municipal elections that has put the French government to the test, Macron pledged 15 billion euros, or about $18 billion, to pay for environmental proposals.

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