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Despite weeks of protests, France implements health pass at cafes and train stations with little drama

People wait for their coronavirus test results at a rapid testing tent set up at a plaza in Marseille, France. (Daniel Cole/AP)
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PARIS — After weeks of protests, France saw relatively little drama on Monday as it expanded its national experiment with coronavirus mandates and began to require that people show a health pass to sit at cafes, eat at restaurants, board long-distance trains and access many other venues.

The tensions were palpable in some moments. A woman at the Gare de Lyon station screamed at safety personnel as her train departed without her, because she lacked a valid pass proving she had been vaccinated, had a previous coronavirus infection or tested negative in the past 72 hours. She was shown the way to the nearest coronavirus testing site and eventually headed in that direction.

But at the Gare du Nord, another of the main train stations in Paris, most people appeared to be adapting to the new rules. About a dozen staffers in blue vests were deployed to scan the QR codes on travelers’ phones. Those who could show a valid pass were handed blue wristbands, allowing them to board their trains to the north of France.

Loudspeaker announcements reminded travelers that “your health pass will be checked during boarding.” Posters across the reception hall read: “One ticket, one mask, one health pass.”

Italy has implemented a similar national health pass, though its version has drawn fewer public protests. Since Friday, people in Italy are required to show documentation before getting access to indoor dining, gyms, theaters and museums. The pass will also be required for long-distance travel and of schoolteachers and university students starting next month.

France’s pass received the final green light from the country’s constitutional council only last Thursday, after weeks of public and parliamentary debate.

Both in France and in Italy, the majority of the population approves of the new measures, surveys show, and the rules have prompted a surge in bookings for vaccination appointments.

But France has had four weekends of mass protests, some of which have turned violent. On Saturday, more than 230,000 people rallied against the measures, according to figures by the Interior Ministry.

To some, carrying a card to verify you've had a vaccination seems like a foreign concept. But vaccine cards, or yellow cards, have been used for decades. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Vaccine passes in Europe spur the pandemic’s second wave of protests

Opposition has come from across the political and societal spectrum, including from nurses who risk being suspended unless they get vaccinated, as well as far-right activists who may be using the protests as a recruiting ground.

In a nod toward its critics, the French government announced minor relaxations of its implementation plan: Negative coronavirus tests will be valid for three days, rather than for only 48 hours. And officials are observing a week's grace period before violators of the rules will be fined or prosecuted.

But the government is not backing down in what amounts to a key leadership test ahead of presidential elections next year.

Customers without a valid pass can be fined more than 135 euros, or about $158. Restaurants and other businesses that fail to check that their clients have passes risk being closed by the authorities.

For now, unvaccinated French are still eligible to get free coronavirus tests, with results usually delivered within around 15 minutes, but the government has indicated it will begin to charge for tests in fall. Testing sites have been set up in tents across the city, including near stations and in popular bar districts.

At a train station in the northeast of Paris, Rania Ban Aboura, 26, was trying to negotiate access to a Strasbourg-bound train for her cousin, who was still waiting for a test she said she had taken over an hour before.

With the train about to depart, two security officers agreed to accompany the cousin back to the testing site, to inquire about the delay. As they ran toward the exit of the train station, Aboura stayed behind and watched the luggage.

She said the health pass was a good idea. “My grandmother died from the coronavirus,” she said.

Aboura said she had not yet been vaccinated, but was planning to get a shot soon.

FOMO in the U.K., sausages in Germany, Dracula’s castle in Romania: Countries dangle coronavirus vaccine incentives

Although the new requirements are aimed at boosting domestic vaccination rates, they apply to everyone, and have created some confusion for tourists who do not have European QR codes.

France has actively wooed vaccinated American tourists this summer, hoping their return would help revitalize the tourism industry. But the government was vague on the question of how they will be able to obtain the QR codes many venues require.

Clotilde Facory, a California resident, stood at a French testing center on Monday, trying unsuccessfully to get more details.

Facory said she is fully vaccinated and arrived in Paris two days earlier, but worried she would need negative tests every 72 hours after the governmental grace period ends next week.

“I wish they would accept the QR from California,” she said. “But that’s not the case.”

Late Monday in France, after the new rules were in effect, tourism secretary Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne announced an email application system for non-E.U. tourists. In in a sign of the confusion, though, his tweet appeared to have been deleted soon after, only to be reposted, this time in French, hours later. The government website he directed people to hadn’t been updated since Aug. 1.

Also on Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a warning of high coronavirus case levels in France, and the State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory.

In Italy, CDC cards are being accepted as proof of vaccination.

As the new health pass requirements went into effect on Friday morning, Holly and Tanner Vick, a couple in their early 40s from Washington state, arrived at Rome’s Borghese Gallery more than half an hour before their reserved time, to make sure they had all the necessary documents with them.

Visitors entering the 17th-century Roman villa that houses the gallery were divided into two lines, one for “E.U.” and one for “non-E.U.” citizens.

“Checking E.U. citizens through their apps is faster,” said Marina Minozzi, a museum official and art historian. Minozzi said an estimated 30 percent of their current visitors are non-Italian, and most of those are American. “I find them quite prepared,” she said of U.S. visitors.

The only problem they had encountered that morning, she said, was caused by two Italian citizens vaccinated only two days before their visit — not long enough to be considered fully inoculated.

Stefano Pitrelli reported from Rome.