Notre-Dame Restoration Pauses Amid France’s Two-Week Lockdown

Lead decontamination policies enacted in August are now in conflict with measures to prevent spread of COVID-19

Notre-Dame work stopped
Restoration work at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris has paused as France works to control the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Chesnot / Getty Images

Restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, which suffered devastating damage during an April 2019 fire, has been postponed indefinitely as France takes drastic measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, reports Bernadette Sauvaget for French daily Libération.

The decision comes as restoration workers at the site were scheduled to begin removing the 250 tons of scaffolding currently weighing down the structure, according to the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris. Measures enacted last August to contain the threat of lead contamination are now in conflict with strict measures announced on Monday to reduce the virus’ impact in France.

An official involved in restoration efforts tells Libération that the removal of scaffolding cannot continue without workers violating “security measures relating to the coronavirus epidemic.”

When authorities confirmed lead levels in the area surrounding the historic church last July, restoration was halted for three weeks as project leaders developed new procedures to reduce the spread of lead dust throughout nearby neighborhoods. As Christa Lesté-Lasserre reports for Science magazine, the protocol requires restoration workers and scientists to step into changing areas and don disposable safety wear—down to paper underwear—as well as wear protective masks while working.

After at most 150 minutes of work, restorers have to remove their gear, shower and put on a new set of disposable clothes.

“We’re taking five showers a day,” Thierry Zimmer, assistant director of the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory, tells Science. He compares the press of people navigating the showers to “the Métro at rush hour.”

Beginning Tuesday afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered residents to stay home except for essential trips like grocery shopping and acquiring medicine, reports the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger. The announcement marks the most stringent measure taken in France, where locals defied earlier warnings calling for social distancing.

For now, the Notre-Dame cathedral remains monitored by sensors, crack detectors and lasers that will warn restorers if the fragile structure becomes unstable. The scaffolding was originally erected last spring for planned restoration of the cathedral’s spire. Fifty-thousand metal tubes welded together in the April 15 fire must be removed to make the building safe for further restoration.

The scaffolding removal project, which was originally scheduled for completion this April, will only continue after a “new order” changes France’s COVID-19 management strategy. When the project continues, wrote Francesco Bandarin, an architect and former senior official at UNESCO, for the Art Newspaper in December, “[T]elescopic crawler cranes ... will allow roped technicians to descend into the forest of pipes.” These technicians will then “gradually cut them away after having coated them with a protective layer to avoid spreading the pollution caused by the melting of the lead roof.”

In December, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, rector of the Notre-Dame, told the Associated Press’ Jeffrey Schaeffer and Angela Charlton that experts remained uncertain whether removing the scaffolding would cause further damage to the structure.

“Today we can say that there is maybe a 50 percent chance that it will be saved,” he said. “There is also a 50 percent chance of scaffolding falling onto the [building’s] three vaults.”

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