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

00:58 31/07/2020
Updated: Friday 31 July

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 general rule

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
  • Along the Belgian coast
  • In all public places within Antwerp province
  • Any other busy public space, as defined by local municipalities

After the national security council gave local mayors the freedom to choose where to require mask-wearing, some local authorities are already taking a tougher stance. In the East Flemish towns of Deinze, Oudenaarde, Kruisem, Kluisbergen and Wortegem-Petegem, masks will be compulsory everywhere outdoors, regardless of how busy the place is. "We must act in a preventive way if we want to prevent a second wave", the mayors said in a joint statement. "A general rule everywhere is clear to everyone: if you leave your home, you put on a mask."

Charleroi has become the latest Belgian municipality to make masks compulsory everywhere, for over-12s. The Brussels region will make mask-wearing compulsory in all public areas when/if the coronavirus stats in the capital exceed 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants per week, minister-president Rudi Vervoort has announced. The latest stats from Sciensano show the Brussels region is currently at 38 cases per 100,000.

Several local police zones approached by RTBF have said they will prioritise dialogue - and an informal caution - before imposing any fines for failing to wear a mask in a shop. The possible fine is €250 for individuals and €750 for stores that repeatedly ignore the rules.

A group of citizens have filed an urgent legal claim with the Council of State, questioning the legality of Belgium's obligation to wear a mask in enclosed public spaces. The operator of a cinema in Tamines, Namur province, has also joined the claim. The group say: "Such an obligation causes significant harm to a large number of people, such as people who are deaf or hard of hearing and who need to be able to read lips to socialise; people who are medically unable to wear a mask; people wishing to be able to worship in decent conditions; and companies that have already suffered greatly from the crisis."

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."

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