World

How one French town made going to the beach safe again

For weeks, France’s 3,500 miles of beaches lay empty, closed off to limit the spread of the coronavirus in a country that has seen more than 28,000 deaths. On May 16, a few days after the French government started lifting confinement orders, most of these beaches reopened to the public, but only for exercise — reclining on a blanket for hours is not allowed.

One resort, though, is experimenting with social distancing-compliant sunbathing. La Grande-Motte, a resort town near Montpellier renowned for its homogenous architecture, has divided its expanse of sand into 75 squares, marked off by stakes and ropes.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

The spots must be booked two days in advance on the municipality’s website. Each time slot lasts only three hours — the static beach closes at lunch time for a safe turnover. Security guards man the entrance. “That makes for a strange feeling of an extraordinary experience,” said Martin Gauthe, who came to the beach with his wife, Christine, from Clapiers, on the outskirts of Montpellier. “Plus, it’s nice, we’re not on top of each other, and most importantly, we can see the horizon.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Mario and Monique Bonamigo have lived in La Grande-Motte for 48 years and ran a nightclub there for three decades. “Today is our first swim of the year! It’s a bit weird to be parked here, but we’re very happy to be able to take in the sun,” said Mario, 80. “Normally, we go to the beach for six months of the year starting in April. We’ve never been on vacation anywhere but La Grande-Motte.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

“It’s strange, we don’t really know what we can and can’t do yet. But it’s a great joy to be here, to breathe the sea air,” said 24-year-old Sofia Belkenadil, who came to the beach with her sister, Kenza. “During the confinement, we stayed at home, and we had a tragedy: Our grandfather died of the coronavirus. We couldn’t visit him at the hospital or even call him. And at the funeral, only seven of us could be with him. Since we were confined, we couldn’t even go out afterward to take our minds off it. We were alone with ourselves, so being here today is great. We’re savoring the moment.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Joelle Leboffe and her children, Cassandra and Nicholas, have been living in Castelnau-le-Lez, on the outskirts of Montpellier, for a year, after moving from London. “We’re happy to finally be able to put our towels on the sand and to be able to swim according to the rules. My husband is Italian. I spoke to my in-laws on the phone yesterday and they can’t swim yet. And my husband, who still lives in London for his work, is still under confinement. We realize how lucky we are.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

“Freedom. That’s the word we thought of when we arrived on the beach,” said Mila Molière, who came to La Grande-Motte with her husband, Laurent, and their daughters, Eleonore and Alexandra, from Montarnaud, a suburb of Montpellier. “It’s strange to find La Grande-Motte with its big empty beaches, and with so much light. Even the sand seems lighter. It’s like finding the beauty in things again.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Outside of the static beach’s 75 squares, no one is allowed to lie on the sand. Municipal officers use lifeguard stations to monitor the coast, giving warning to those who might breach the nationwide rules.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

“Just before 9 a.m., we were already on the website for a chance to get a space,” Gauthe said. “Being here, we get the feeling that we’re experiencing something exceptional, something that won’t happen again, because either all the beaches are going to reopen soon or we’ll have to confine ourselves again if there is a second wave of the virus. Either way, this static beach device will disappear.”

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

On June 2, France will enter the second phase of its planned reopening. At that time, restrictions on the country’s beaches may be lifted, bringing to an end La Grande-Motte’s singular experiment. But, with fears of a second wave, other towns on France’s coasts are already talking about copying the model.

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post

Sandra Mehl for The Washington Post