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Coronavirus in Belgium: What are the rules on wearing masks?
As Belgium slowly eases its coronavirus movement restrictions, face masks have become compulsory in some places - and "strongly encouraged" in others. Here's a recap of the rules.
The general rule
Masks are recommended in any public place where a minimum 1.5-metre distance cannot be guaranteed. They are compulsory in the following places:
- On public transport. This includes bus stops and stations, as well as the vehicles themselves.
- At airports. Brussels Airport is handing out facemasks to passengers and employees.
- In museums, historical buildings and animal parks
- In schools, for pupils over 12 and all staff
- At hairdressers, beauty salons or tattoo parlours
The Belgian federal government has not totally ruled out making mask-wearing compulsory in shops, health minister Maggie De Block suggested recently. Currently, wearing a mask in stores is highly recommended but not mandatory. "The discussion on masks is not over," she told VRT's De Zevende Dag, adding that it could be made compulsory "if the figures go back in the wrong direction."
An open letter signed by more than 700 physicians around the country is demanding that measures to control the spread of Covid-19 continue to be enforced among the population. The doctors also state that the use of facemasks should be required. The letter was published in Knack magazine.
The doctors are concerned about the public’s behaviour now that most of the measures to control the virus are no longer in effect. “People seem to have forgotten that the decrease in infections is the result of a lockdown and of following measures meticulously for weeks after that,” reads the letter. “We have noticed that, because of the downward trends, there is the impression that the coronavirus ‘is over’.”
Differences in Brussels
Four Brussels municipalities have decided to introduce their own local rules on masks for over-12s. In Etterbeek, you must wear a mask - or a scarf covering the nose and mouth - on shopping streets such as the Rue des Tongres (Mérode), Chaussée de Wavre and La Chasse, inside the shops themselves and in the vicinity of schools. The neighbouring communes of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and Woluwe-Saint-Pierre require masks in shops and shopping streets including Avenue Georges Henri, Tomberg, Sainte-Alix, Stockel and inside Woluwe Shopping centre. Saint-Josse, Brussels' smallest municipality, has done the same because of its high population density and often narrow streets. Some other municipalities only recommend wearing a mask in public, such as Auderghem, Ixelles and Forest.
However, Belgian interior minister Pieter De Crem is taking action against mayors and regional governors who have chosen to impose their own local rules on issues such as mask-wearing, events and care home visits. "A mayor cannot impose the wearing of a mask," De Crem wrote in a letter to governors. Mayors who have passed local decrees that go against the recommendations of Belgium's national security council will have to withdraw the measures.
Aldi, Lidl, Delhaize and Carrefour head offices say their stores are following the rules of the national security council - namely, wearing a mask is recommended but not compulsory. However, some smaller Delhaize stores (Proxy and Shop&Go) and small Carrefour Express shops are run by independent franchisees, whose managers are free to set their own rules. The UCM union confirms: "Nothing prevents an independent trader from requiring the wearing of a mask for someone to enter his or her business."
Where can I get a mask?
All of the 15 million fabric facemasks ordered by the Belgian defence ministry for distribution to residents have now arrived in the country. The masks were due to arrive on 24 May at the latest, and supplier Avrox has had to suffer a financial penalty, reportedly in the region of €5 million, for the delay.
The masks have been available in pharmacies since 15 June. One person per household should pick up the masks for the whole family, and must have their ID card with them. The distribution of free facemasks from the federal government, in pharmacies, is still slow. Only two million masks out of the 15 million available have been picked up, according to the Belgian Pharmaceutical Association.
Supermarkets have been allowed to sell masks to the general public. The VAT charged on protective items including masks and disinfectant gels has been dropped from 21% to 6%. According to UC Louvain infectious disease specialist Jean-Luc Gala, the masks sold in supermarkets are "of poor quality". He said on Wednesday: "This paper mask does not protect you against contamination by the virus, it protects others from you. It is a mask which can only be used for three or four hours. Afterwards, it loses all its effectiveness - it must then be thrown away. I continue to advocate the fabric mask, it is cheaper, more secure, it can be washed and sterilised."
Are the government-issued masks good enough?
Consumer watchdog Test-Achats has been busy testing the quality of a range of reusable facemasks commonly sold in Belgium - and found that four out of 10 of them did not offer sufficient protection. Two of the masks tested had insufficient filtering, a third was no longer compliant after a single wash and a fourth had elastic bands that did not hold the mask correctly in place, exposing the bridge of the user's nose. The federal facemasks currently being handed out in pharmacies passed the tests, as did all four of the supermarket disposable masks that were tested. In fact, three of the four supermarket models were considered as good as a surgical mask. Test-Achats also found that only one out of five masks sold in pharmacies under the name "surgical masks" actually met the norms for surgical protective gear.
Belgium's Court of Auditors will carry out an investigation into the procedures followed by the federal government when ordering its supply of facemasks for the general public. The audit will look at the suitability of the chosen suppliers, the delays in delivery and the quality of the masks, after it emerged that the masks have to be washed at 30°C and not 60°C.
Defence minister Philippe Goffin has insisted the 15 million cloth facemasks are safe to use. The masks must be hand-washed at 30°C. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, official advice has been to wash masks at 60°C for at least half an hour. A requirement for the masks to be washable at 60°C, which was written in a note on 24 April, was downgraded to a "recommendation, no longer than an obligation" four days later, the minister said. Goffin said the masks could be washed by hand with soap up to 25 times. He said he had "acted with complete transparency and respected the rules".
A legal investigation has been opened into the supply of 15 million facemasks by Luxembourg-registered company Avrox. The firm won a public tender from the defence ministry to supply most of the reusable cloth masks that are being distributed in pharmacies from this week. The Central Office for the Suppression of Corruption, which investigates public procurement issues, has sent a dossier of information to the Brussels prosecutor's office. Avrox said it was not aware of the case, adding: "Prosecutors are independent and have the right to carry out whatever investigations they deem necessary." The firm said it had "nothing to hide and will do everything to cooperate with the judicial authorities".
How do I make my own mask?
A campaign has been launched to encourage people to make their own facemasks at home - and donate any surplus masks at an official collection point, where they will be distributed to others. The 'National Sewing Action' has been coordinated by Impactdays.co in partnership with the federal health ministry and has been approved by virologists Marc Van Ranst and Steven Van Gucht. To participate, simply go to www.makefacemasks.com, download the template and instructions and start sewing, with or without a machine.
Brussels' alderwoman for culture, Delphine Houba, has given Manneken-Pis a tailor-made mask. The statue had already worn an unofficial mask, donated by the public, for several weeks, although Houba noted that "it is forbidden to dress Manneken Pis without authorisation".
Disposing of a mask
Street cleaners in Brussels say they are seeing hundreds of used facemasks and gloves discarded in public each day. ULB professor of public health Yves Coppieters said: "The mask presents a danger if it has been in contact with an infected person. The virus remains on the mask's surface, so it is a danger for anyone who touches it." A disposable mask is not recyclable and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. They should be thrown away with ordinary household waste - in the white bin bag - for incineration. A Brussels-City spokeswoman said anyone caught throwing their mask on the ground could be fined €200.