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

00:58 03/09/2020
Updated: Monday 14 September

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.

Specific rules for Brussels and Antwerp

Wearing a mask is compulsory in all public places within the Brussels region and Antwerp province, for everyone aged 12 and over. Exemptions apply when doing sport and for people with a disability that does not allow them to wear a mask, who can instead wear a face shield. People carrying out intense physical work in public, such as roadworks and collecting rubbish, are also exempt.

Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort says police will not be heavy-handed in their enforcement of the rules, at first. "Not everyone is permanently connected, reads newspapers and watches television all the time," he said. Police will issue warnings at first. Later they will "move on to the repressive phase". Brussels' mandatory facemask requirement will no longer apply to cyclists and scooter riders. However, they must carry a mask with them at all times and put it on if they are in a busy place - for example, waiting at a red light where lots of pedestrians are crossing. "When you find that the physical safety distances cannot be respected, the mask will have to be put back on," said Brussels minister-president Rudi Vervoort.

Mandatory facemasks in all public places within the Brussels region will remain the rule until at least mid-September, minister-president Rudi Vervoort has said. "With the return of holidaymakers, especially from red zones, and the start of the school year, we cannot relax the measures yet," he said.

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."

Since the beginning of July, the City of Brussels has fined 1,500 people for not wearing a mask, mayor Philippe Close has said.

The general rule across Belgium

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 must carry a mask with them at all times.
Three Belgian seaside towns have decided to relax their rules on masks. From 1 September, De Panne, Koksijde and Nieuwpoort will no longer require masks everywhere - only on the promenade and shopping streets where a safe distance of 1.5 metres cannot be maintained (as well as on public transport and in restaurants while standing up). Koksijde mayor Marc Vanden Bussche said: "We want to offer our residents, second home owners and tourists a clear perspective for the future. Calm should gradually return to the coast. There is therefore no point in continuing to make it compulsory to wear a mask everywhere." Ostend has become the latest seaside town to relax its mask rules.
Wearing a mask will no longer be mandatory along the Belgian seafront, from 1 September. However anyone visiting the coast must have a mask with them at all times, ready to put on if necessary.
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."
Belgium's Council of State has thrown out a legal appeal against the requirement to wear masks in public in Brussels. A 68-year-old Brussels resident had tried to overturn the order, arguing that it was "a symbolic measure without a reasonable basis" and an intrusion into his private life. The Council of State said the complainant "does not demonstrate any particular circumstance which would make it difficult for him to wear the mask."
France will require workers in open-plan offices to wear a mask from 1 September, but Belgium has no similar plans. Crisis centre spokeswoman Frédérique Jacobs said: "In France, a quarter of outbreaks are linked to the workplace. It is probably the same here, but the rules remain unchanged: whether you are outside the home or in the office, you must respect a 1.5-metre distance and be in a well-ventilated space." 

Where can I get a mask?

Millions of cloth facemasks ordered by the federal government are still sitting in pharmacies, waiting to be picked up free of charge. About 3.5 million of the 15 million masks delivered have been picked up. One member of a family can collect masks for the whole household. Just bring your ID card.

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.

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.

Written by The Bulletin