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Coronavirus: Marseille soap firm cleaning up as people urged to wash hands to stop COVID-19

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Melanie Dinot, a retail worker at the Savonnerie de la Licorne poses for a portrait hours before nationwide confinement measures were in effect in Marseille, France, March 17.
Melanie Dinot, a retail worker at the Savonnerie de la Licorne poses for a portrait hours before nationwide confinement measures were in effect in Marseille, France, March 17.   -   Copyright  AP/Daniel Cole
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While the coronavirus crisis is causing economic headaches across Europe, one manufacturer in southern France has seen a boom in demand.

Marseille's traditional soap is enjoying a surge in popularity as Europeans are urged to wash their hands to prevent COVID-19.

With an abundance of local oils, soda, and salt, Marseille boasts a lengthy tradition of producing the natural soaps once prized throughout Europe.

But only a handful of businesses are still active.

The Savonnerie de la Licorne opened more than a century ago, when Serge Bruna's grandfather entered the then-booming business in the southern port city.

Bruna's father continued the family business, although it was requisitioned during World War II, when soap was considered an essential commodity.

Today, Bruna sells soap from the same shopfront on Marseille’s Old Port — wearing a sanitary mask and skin-tight gloves.

“Even though we work in a factory full of virus-repellent soap, it is good to take precautions,” Serge Bruna told Associated Press.

Savonnerie de la Licorne, which runs four soap shops on the Old Port, a museum and a small factory in the heart of Marseille, has seen its shop sales increase 30% and delivery orders quadruple since Italy declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus.

“We had fewer tourists or none at all in our stores,” he said. "On the other hand, (Marseille residents) were much more frequent visitors and some even came to stockpile.”

As the public rushed to buy supplies to last during a looming quarantine, Bruna and his artisans continued making soap by hand, filling the port-view shops as well as boxes destined for export.

Since French shops were ordered closed this week as a public health precaution, the Savonnerie de la Licorne now only carries out deliveries, supplying pharmacies across France and handling individual orders made online.

“I’m not sure that making our soaps is more important than before, but I would say that people who have lost the habit of using Marseille soap have all of a sudden rediscovered its properties,” he said.

The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most of those infected, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or people with existing health problems. The vast majority of those infected recover.

AP/Daniele Cole
Discarded bars of soap sit in a bucket at the Licorne soap factory in Marseille, southern France, March, 16, 2020AP/Daniele Cole
AP/Daniele Cole
Julie Dinot wears a mask as she attends to customers at the Savonnerie de la Licorne shop on Marseille's Old Port in MarseilleAP/Daniele Cole
AP/Daniele Cole
Serge Bruna locks up the Marseille soap museum on the Old Port in Marseille, southern France, March, 16, 2020.AP/Daniele Cole
AP/ Daniele Cole
A factory worker at the Licorne at the Licorne soap factory prepares boxes to be packed with soap an hour before nationwide confinement measures in Marseille, France.AP/ Daniele Cole
AP Photo/Daniel Cole
In this photo taken Monday March 16 2020, a factory worker cuts soap into bars at the Licorne soap factory in Marseille, southern France.AP Photo/Daniel Cole
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