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Brussels to control number of visitors to Grand-Place Christmas attractions
People once again flooded into the Grand-Place in Brussels on Sunday night to admire the Christmas lights and tree, a day after politicians and health experts called on the public to abide by the restrictions brought in to fight the continued spread of the coronavirus.
“Unfortunately, there are too many people together at the same time,” said Brussels mayor Philippe Close after crowds flocked to the illuminations on Saturday. “We ask each of you to follow all the health guidelines. We must continue, together, our efforts."
Virologist Marc Van Ranst called on people to turn around and leave if the crowds were too large. "If you can't stay 1.5 metres away, then get out of the place!" he said in a tweet.
After being shocked by the influx of people on Saturday, the City of Brussels called on the police to manage the flow of sightseers into the Grand-Place in the coming days. "A meeting is taking place on Monday morning to find out what process to apply in order to limit the number of people present at the same time on the Grand-Place, during busy days," said Wafaa Hammich, press secretary to the mayor of Brussels.
It is likely that a filtering system will be introduced. "We are talking about a screening process based on a count of the number of people attending, which will probably be the same as the one that will be applied on Rue Neuve as of Tuesday,” added Wafaa Hammich. “The idea is to be able to allow people to come for a walk in the city centre, while respecting the health measures."
"But to manage the influx of people, we need law enforcement,” she concluded. “They will ensure that there is a turnover, that people do not stay too long. At the Galerie de la Reine, it will be a private company that will do it."
Olivier Slosse, spokesman for the Brussels-Ixelles police zone, said: "We saw this kind of situation on Saturday night where everyone comes and stays for a long time, so we have to intervene to regulate the flow of people differently, either by controlling access to the Grand-Place or by sometimes closing access at certain times. It is also a matter of good communication with the public."
The City of Brussels had considered the risk of major crowds turning up for the first few nights of the Christmas illuminations and the arrival of the Christmas tree. After several consultations, which included discussions with psychologists, it was decided to go ahead with limited celebrations, to keep up the morale of the population.
The reaction of the authorities to the crowds on the Grand-Place provoked several comments on social media from members of the public who seemed at a loss as to why the celebrations went ahead at all. The general consensus was that, while so many other activities have been curtailed under the current restrictions, it was unsurprising that masses of people would take the chance to come out and socialise on the Grand-Place. “The word attraction in itself means to attract,” wrote one person. “It is then absurd to complain when people flock to the Grand-Place when the closure of shopping areas offers no other area of interest to people.”
Brussels was not the only major Belgian city to see huge crowds at the opening of Christmas attractions over the weekend. Such was the popularity of the turning on of the Christmas lights in Bruges on Saturday, that the mayor of the city decided to cancel the Wintergloed light show on Sunday as well as next weekend. "We must first see how we can organise everything safely," said the mayor, Dirk De Fauw.
The police had to turn back visitors to the Wintergloed light show as early as 6:00 18.00 on Saturday as the crowds were getting too large.
On Sunday morning, a meeting was held between the city and the police to determine how to organize the event safely. "First we need to see how to avoid the bottleneck in the future,” said the mayor. “For example, in some places we will opt for one-way traffic for pedestrians."
Next weekend will be the first opening weekend for shops in Bruges after several weeks of closure. The hope is that by cancelling the Wintergloed, the authorities will prevent crowds of sightseers and eager shoppers from piling up in the city.