By Caroline Pailliez and Eric Gaillard
NICE, France (Reuters) – On a plot of gravel overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Jean-Claude Calcagno prepares for a round of petanque, the French version of lawn bowls and a sport favoured by retirees.
His club in the French resort of Nice would normally be teeming with people, but Calcagno said many of the members are staying away, scared off by the resurgent COVID-19 outbreak.
“They’re a bit reluctant,” Calcagno said of his clubmates, most of them seniors. “If they’re in any doubt, they don’t come.”
After abating over the summer, the coronavirus pandemic is gaining ground again in many parts of Europe, and this patch of southern France is a hotspot.
The French government has designated the region around Nice as a zone of heightened alert. Bars and restaurants in the region have to close from 10 pm and no more than 10 people are allowed to gather in one place.
The region also has an unusual concentration of retirees. People aged 60 and upwards make up 29.6% of the population in Nice, according to the state statistics agency, compared to 20.5% nationally.
They are attracted by the year-round mild weather and retiree-friendly amenities. A hearing aid shop and a cardiologist’s consulting room lie within a 200 metre (yard) radius of the petanque club.
But the combination of the worsening epidemic and elderly population have left many retirees in the city living in fear.
“The second wave … is on its way, alas,” Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said last week. “We have a life expectancy which is the highest in France and, at the same time, I want to protect that life expectancy.”
Life has changed for the community that revolves around the petanque club, just off the city’s Promenade des Anglais.
Club president Jean Sanchez said only a third of members were showing up for games.
Pierre Laurent, a 78-year-old, volunteers in the clubhouse running the counter from where drinks are sold to members. He said he tries to get out of the duty because of the virus risk. Being behind the bar, he cannot retreat if someone gets too close.
Out on the gravel square, players aim to get their ball closest to the jack. Usually, a round ends with players crouched in a tight knot around the jack, measuring who is closest. Now, one person measures while the others watch from a safe distance, said club member Annie Saudin.
Saudin, who said she was in her seventies, said she played petanque because she needed the social interaction.
Otherwise, she said, she stays close to home. She only uses a tram when she absolutely has to, she keeps away from the city centre to avoid crowds and she said she no longer visits friends at their homes.
“This business is not over yet,” she said of the virus. “We need to be really wary, particularly senior citizens.”
(Additional reporting by Matthias Galante; Writing by Christian Lowe and Caroline Pailliez; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
PHOTO: Annie Saudin, wearing a protective face mask, plays petanque at the Amicale Bouliste Carras Aeroport club in Nice, France, September 23, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard