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French town's empty main street tells tale of virus impact

STIRING-WENDEL, France (Reuters) - The COVID-19 outbreak forced Shirley Lind to close the hairdressing salon she runs in a French town near the German border. She has instead been volunteering as a porter at her local hospital.

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“I could not stand staying at home, doing nothing, going round in circles counting the losses,” she said in her empty salon.

Lind is one of the millions of small business owners across Europe forced to pull down the shutters to comply with government movement restrictions because they do not fall into the category of essential services.

Stiring-Wendel, a former mining town of 11,000 people, offers a snapshot of the tough reality these businesses face.

Each morning in the town there is a flurry of activity as shoppers head to the pharmacy and the Carrefour supermarket to get essential supplies, but after 11 am (0900 GMT), its centre empties.

Lind, like other entrepreneurs who were deemed non-essential, put her two employees on furlough, the bulk of their salary is to be paid by the state.

But with no money coming in, she worries about how she will pay bills on her salon and her mortgage. “I’m crossing my fingers we can get through this,” she said.

A short walk from her salon, past the church of Saint Francois, is the shop were Pierre Etienne Gry would normally be fitting hearing aids.

The shop is closed but he does see people by appointment to repair broken hearing aids. He worries for his mostly elderly clients, the group hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

Directly across the street is Gregory Klein’s optician. His business is at a complete halt and his six staff on furlough.

Even though President Emmanuel Macron has said rent and utility bills owed by small companies will be suspended to help them stay afloat, Klein still has bills to pay and repayments to make on the loan he took out to buy the business.

“These things make me really question the future of my shop,” he said, standing in front of a display of glasses in the empty business.

A four-minute walk west, along Cemetery Alley, is Nathalie Zitter’s florist shop. When France’s lockdown began, she had just invested in new stock for the spring gardening season, and the Easter holiday. Most of that, she said, had to be thrown away.

Her shop stands across the street from the town cemetery, and she has watched, helpless, as burials were conducted without flowers or wreaths.

“It’s always better when there are flowers because that eases the pain a little bit,” she said.

Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Richard Lough and Janet Lawrence

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