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Mask rules relaxed from 1 October - but Brussels and Wallonia remain cautious
Belgium's federal government has announced it will lift the requirement to wear a mask in shops, restaurants and cafes from 1 October - and allow nightclubs to reopen.
But the relaxed rules on masks are likely to only apply in Flanders, as both Brussels and Wallonia have indicated that they will maintain the existing measures.
The consultative committee met on Friday and decided that masks should remain compulsory nationwide on public transport, in stations and airports, hospitals, care homes and indoor cultural and leisure venues, as well as for staff in medical and non-medical contact professions (such as hairdressers).
While the decisions have been taken at federal level, each region can choose whether or not to implement the mask relaxations in shops and cafes, based on infection and vaccination rates.
Brussels has already announced that it will not make any changes to the current rules. "The situation in Brussels will not make it possible to make relaxations on 1 October," said the region's minister-president Rudi Vervoort. "The obligation to wear a mask will have to be maintained in the sectors where it currently applies."
Wallonia is also unlikely to relax the mask rules on 1 October. Minister-president Elio Di Rupo said: "In indoor places where there are unvaccinated people, I think that the mask should be kept. Also outside if there are a lot of people close together."
Nightclubs will be allowed to reopen from 1 October, with rules on ventilation and a capacity limit, and dancing in cafes will be allowed again. Each region can choose whether to impose the Covid Safe Ticket, which would allow nightclub-goers to not wear a mask.
Events with more than 500 people inside and 750 outside, without masks or distancing, can be organised using the Covid Safe Ticket scheme.
Prime minister Alexander De Croo issued a plea to those who have yet to be vaccinated, saying: "Those who have not been vaccinated are the people responsible for the fact that the rules remain strict in some places.
"Whoever does not get vaccinated today is endangering his or her own life and they are also endangering the lives of others."
De Croo added: "This epidemic is becoming an epidemic of unvaccinated people. Intensive care has become a place for unvaccinated people. We cannot accept that people make a choice to put others in danger."
Virologist Steven Van Gucht said the relaxations had come too early. "We are at the beginning of a difficult period," he said.
"The big test won't come until October or November, perhaps a little later. We don't really know how the infections will evolve during this period.
"I would have preferred these latest measures to have come a little later. There would then have been more data and therefore more certainty."
But he added: "It's good that the rules are not immediately being relaxed in places where the numbers are not good, in Brussels for example. The death rate is three times higher and the infection rate is even up to four times higher. In Flanders, there is more room for relaxation."
Van Gucht said: "The mask is a very efficient tool. It remains an important weapon, especially in places where social distancing cannot be maintained."
The consultative committee is due to meet again no later than mid-October to assess the latest coronavirus trends.
Photo: Eric Lalmand/Belga