While stores can open as planned next week Monday, some restrictions on social life will be slowly relaxed sooner than initially expected, Belgium’s National Security Council (CNS) said, giving green light to the second phase of deconfinement measures, known as 1B, on Wednesday (6 May).
Belgium announced a gradual deconfinement in April, marking out 4, 11 and 18 May, as well as 8 June, as key dates.
As of Monday (4 May), phase one of the deconfinement measures is being implemented with companies allowed to get back to work and for people to do more sports activities outdoors.
“We can start the new phase on Monday because the criteria are favourable. Hospital admissions continue to decline, with only a third of the beds in the intensive care unit being occupied by COVID-19 patients,” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes told reporters in Brussels.
As of Wednesday (6 May), there are 50,781 cases, 8,339 reported deaths in Belgium.
“The phase-out is a delicate exercise. Some will find that it is going too fast, others that it is going too slow. All governments have worked hard together to find the best solutions,” she added. “But make no mistake, the restrictions will be there for a long time.”
Here’s a brief overview of the upcoming relaxing of measures:
All stores can reopen on Monday 11 May, but that will be done under strict social distancing and hygienic rules, Wilmès emphasised.
“Only one customer per 10 m², and only for 30 minutes. It will be strongly recommended that the customer wear a mask, and in any case the safe distance must be respected,” she said, adding that a safe working environment must be guaranteed for employees.
Wilmès warned against a mass effect when shops reopen, which is why it is recommended to only go shopping alone, with exceptions for children under the age of 18 and people who need assistance.
“Local authorities continue to monitor strict compliance with the rules in public. We continue to count on the common sense of the citizen,” she said, adding that it is recommended to stay close to home and priority should be given to the elderly, people who are less mobile or healthcare workers.
Social life and contact tracing
“The previous relaxation of social contact measures, the authorisation to walk with a second person was not enough for many citizens and the physical distance from those we love is, in some cases, unbearable,” said Wilmès. “This is why further broadening of social contacts is planned from Sunday.”
According to the previous schedules, relaxation of social contacts was only intended from 18 May onwards.
With the new plan, each family/household can receive up to 4 people, always the same group, but need to keep the necessary physical distance and preferably receive visitors outside.
“This system makes tracking easier afterwards if someone catches the virus,” Wilmes said, adding that “regarding testing, Belgium is an example in Europe and the regions are already operational for tracing.”
Some politicians and experts already expressed concern that any relaxation on gatherings could potentially cause a second wave.
“That is really the maximum that we can do and we do it with a scared heart,” virologist Marc Van Ranst said.
Masks and public transport
As of 4 May, the wearing of a mask or scarf is compulsory on public transport including bus stops and stations, in schools and at the workplace, from 12 years of age.
The government has promised that each citizen will receive at least one standard cloth protection covering the mouth and nose free of charge, while employers will also be responsible for providing protective equipment to their employees.
“A significant number of filters are distributed this week, one million. They should make it possible to raise the level of protection, but the masks will take longer to arrive,” Wilmes said.
During the long May weekend, the country performed an average of 24,000 tests per day and distributed more than 2.3 million surgical masks across the regions, according to official numbers.
According to Minister-President of Wallonia, Elio Di Rupo, “all the mayors have already taken an initiative” with local authorities giving information on websites how and where to acquire masks.
People are also asked to use public transport as little as possible.
“Only if you have no other alternative you can use public transport, otherwise you better leave the place to someone who really needs it,” said Wilmès.
Sports competitions remain prohibited until July 31.
What to expect in the next phase?
The next phase of the exit strategy is scheduled for 18 May, when education will gradually start again.
Day trips and visits to second homes have been postponed to phase 3, that is to 8 June at the earliest, having previously been planned for 18 May.
“Together with the experts, we are looking at what is possible at markets, museums, libraries, zoos, among others. We are also investigating whether hairdressers and beauty centres can open again and whether more people are allowed in at weddings and funerals,” Wimès said.