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Confirmed: Belgium set to ease coronavirus restrictions in phases - starting 4 May
Belgium will gradually ease its coronavirus restrictions, in phases, from 4 May, Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès has announced.
The new measures came after a seven-hour meeting of Belgium's national security council.
Wilmès said the easing of measures will be "progressive", "evolutive" - some measures will have to be adapted depending on the virus's spread - and "not definitive", adding: "We can never exclude the possibility of taking a step back."
"We had made seven weeks of sacrifices," Wilmès said. "It is time to look to the future."
She added: "What is sure is that things will not return to normal in the short or medium term."
The following dates are provisional. They depend on the daily figures on hospitalisations and the virus's spread.
Phase 1a - from 4 May
We should stay at home, as now. Remote working remains the norm and schools remain closed. Firms providing business-to-business services, without public contact, can reopen, while maintaining social distancing rules.
Facemasks are required on all public transport in Belgium. Children under the age of 12 are not required to wear a mask. In the absence of a facemask, a scarf worn over the mouth and nose is acceptable. Fabric shops may open. This is to allow those who want to make their own facemasks to do so.
Other open-air sport activities besides walking, jogging and cycling are allowed, such as basketball or frisbee, but are restricted to two people, or three people if two of them live under the same roof.
Phase 1b - from 11 May
All shops may re-open, under strict hygiene conditions, including limiting the number of customers in the shop at any given time, similar to the current measure for supermarkets. This means that the restriction on movements is also relaxed to allow shopping.
Contact tracers begin. Contact tracers will be tasked with informing people that they have come into contact with someone who has symptoms of or tested positive for the coronavirus. A smartphone app for citizens is not being considered for now.
Phase 2 - from 18 May
Museums would be allowed to reopen, as would professions requiring close contact with the public, such as hairdressers. Private gatherings with friends and family, at home, could be allowed, as well as possible relaxation of the rules on weddings and funerals. Sporting activities could be extended to more than two people outside your immediate family. Second home visits could be allowed again - and it is proposed that short leisure trips within Belgium, such as to the coast or the Ardennes, could be allowed from this date.
Some primary and secondary school pupils can return to class - a maximum of three year groups per school, to be defined by each language community, with priority for final-year students. Nursery schools will remain closed until at least the end of May. Pupils aged 12 and over must wear a mask all day. Class sizes will be limited to 10 children, with at least 4m² of space per pupil and 8m² for the teacher.
Phase 3 - at the earliest 8 June
Authorities will consider a potential reopening of restaurants. Cafes and bars would follow at a later date. By June, more details will be announced about summer holiday travel plans. This phase is dependent on the success of the previous phases in controlling the spread of the virus.
Social distancing rules maintained
Throughout the deconfinement process, it remains essential that you reduce the number of people you see - and respect a safe distance of at least 1.5m, as well as maintaining basic hygiene measures: washing hands with soap and sneezing into your elbow and using disposable tissues.
Belgium "strongly encourages" wearing masks in busy public places where social distancing cannot be guaranteed. Masks will be compulsory on public transport from 4 May for everyone aged 12 and over.
Every resident will receive at least one free cloth mask and two filters. Federal, regional and municipal bodies will combine their efforts. Surgical masks must only be used by people in frontline jobs. Video tutorials will explain how to safely wear a mask.
Other adaptations to the current measures are an increase in non-essential procedures that can be carried out in hospitals. Anyone waiting on a procedure should contact their hospital.
The security council said that it would make further announcements regarding professional sport matches and competitions, youth summer camps, the opening of tourist attractions and smaller outdoor events
The security council said that it would constantly monitor the public health situation and adapt the measures as the weeks progress. “We have always known that the exit strategy would be a long-term process,” said prime minister Sophie Wilmès at the press conference yesterday evening. “We are looking at a long period of transition, which will eventually get us back to a place where we can live our normal lives.”
Wilmès emphasised that the efforts that we have already made have had a huge impact on medical personnel and the number of deaths. Quarantine measures have kept Belgium far below the maximum capacity in intensive care space.
“To make this work, we depend on all of you,” she continued. “We are counting on your desire to act responsibly, your civic engagement and your common sense. Respecting these measures will get us back – back to the things we love, and to the people we love.”
Photo: Benoit Doppagne/Belga