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Coronavirus in Belgium: What are the rules on wearing masks?

00:58 30/09/2020
Updated: Monday 12 October

As Belgium slowly eases its coronavirus movement restrictions, face masks have become compulsory in several places - and "strongly encouraged" in others. Here's a recap of the rules.

The rules

Masks are recommended in any public place where a minimum 1.5-metre distance cannot be guaranteed. They are compulsory for everyone aged 12 and over in the following places, with a possible €250 fine for non-compliance:

  • On public transport. This includes bus stops and stations, as well as the vehicles themselves.
  • At airports
  • In schools
  • In cafes, restaurants and bars when not sitting down: for example, on arrival, when leaving or going to the toilet
  • At all organised public events, indoors or outdoors (from 29 July)
  • Markets
  • Funfairs
  • At hairdressers, beauty salons or tattoo parlours
  • Shops, shopping centres and shopping streets
  • Cinemas
  • Libraries
  • Museums
  • Theatres
  • Concert halls
  • Conference venues
  • Places of worship
  • Casinos
  • Banks
  • Court buildings
  • Any other busy public space, as defined by local municipalities

Residents in Flemish Brabant, Hainaut province and the Brussels-Capital region must carry a mask with them at all times. The Brussels-Capital Region has officially scrapped the requirement to wear facemasks out of doors as of 1 October. The national security council announced that facemasks were no longer required outside except in crowded situations where practising social distancing was impossible. The council specifically requested that municipalities respect the decision and not make up their own rules. According to minister-president Rudi Vervoort, individual municipalities can require facemasks in busy areas if they think it is necessary.
Can you remove your mask to smoke a cigarette or eat a sandwich in a park? RTL asked Belgium's crisis centre for clarification - and received none. "These are details that you will find on the websites of the municipalities concerned," said spokesman Antoine Iseux, which suggests that the interpretation of the rules will vary from one commune to the next. A restaurant worker in Brussels was fined this week for taking a cigarette break outdoors. "A police team passed by," the man said. "Thinking that I was doing nothing wrong, I continued to smoke my cigarette in front of them. They asked for my ID card and told me I would be sanctioned." Brussels-City has published a map to show on which streets and squares a facemask is still required from 1 October. This includes a large part of the pedestrian zone and a section of Avenue Louise, among other areas.
A federation of Dutch-speaking family doctors in Brussels, BHAK, has recommended that anyone living in an extended family, spanning several generations, should wear a mask at home. The group says transmission of the virus is greater in densely populated neighbourhoods, where grandparents, parents and children often live together. "More and more young people are testing positive," a spokesman said. "People have to understand that it is necessary. If it is not for society as a whole, then it is at least for their own family." 

Where can I get a mask?

Only half of the free facemasks provided by the federal government have been claimed by citizens in Belgium. Every resident with an ID number has the right to claim a mask in any pharmacy. The masks have been available since June, but by then most people had already bought facemasks elsewhere. The masks can still be picked up at pharmacies until the end of the year. Any leftover masks will be added to the country’s strategic reserves.

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."

The municipality of Etterbeek is offering to refund the cost of buying facemasks for the commune's least well-off residents. The CPAS will give low-income adults €50, and students in full-time education €75. The measure is available to residents who already receive some form of assistance from the CPAS, and anyone else who can demonstrate a susbstantial loss of earnings due to the coronavirus crisis. It is open until the end of November.

Molenbeek city councillor Ahmed El Khannouss (CDH) has filed a complaint with the regional government citing procedural errors in his municipality’s purchase of facemasks. The public bid saw three organisations responding with bids. “Two of the three were not active in the domain concerned,” El Khannouss told La Capitale. “One of them has a non-profit status and the other did not have a VAT number.” The bidder that was awarded the contract, meanwhile, “had only had a VAT number for a few weeks and so its reliability could not be verified”.

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".

A Zaventem-based firm has lost its appeal against the decision to give the federal face-mask contract to Luxembourg firm Avrox and Ghent-based Tweeds & Cottons. The defence ministry ordered 15 million and three million masks respectively from these two suppliers. I'll Be Bag, a rival bidder, had appealed to the Council of State for the orders to be cancelled, claiming the winning suppliers had made unrealistic promises in terms of volume and delivery schedule. The complainant also took issue with the fact that Avrox's 15 million masks can only be hand-washed at 30°C.

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.

Belgium's federal public health service is launching an awareness campaign to encourage people to dispose of their facemasks correctly. A single-use mask can take up to 450 years to biodegrade. An increasing number of discarded masks can be found on the streets and in the sea, carried away by the wind and rivers. "Marine animals can mistake masks for jellyfish," the authorities say. "By swallowing them, their stomachs are immediately full but without any nutrient supply, which, in the long run, weakens them. Animals can get entangled in masks too. And ultimately the microparticles that make them up can also end up on our plates."

Written by The Bulletin