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Reporters find freedom and defiance alive in 'illegal' Brussels bar scene

A beer glass sits at a deserted table in a Brussels bar (BELGA PHOTO)
06:09 15/04/2021

The catering industry remains closed until at least 8 May, but a pub in the centre of Brussels opens its doors every weekend. Drinkers are welcome, provided they know the password. The operators believe they are not doing anything illegal. "If the police come in, we'll call in our lawyer."

Journalists from Bruzz obtained the information needed to enter the COVID ‘speakeasy’ and went undercover to report on a ‘forbidden evening’ of drinking and socialising in the heart of the Belgian capital this week. While the establishment itself may have been contravening restrictions, the Bruzz reporters made sure they kept as safe as possible during the assignment and adhered to health advice.

What they found, after using the instructions they had been given the night before from a source, was a bar spread over two floors, where about 20 people sat around in comfortable single seats and stylish leather armchairs: friends of the owner, friends of those friends, other café owners, musicians and even some tourists. In the corner, a man played a guitar. No one was wearing a face mask.

The scene reported by Bruzz sounds much like any pub or café from the ‘before’ times. The air was apparently filled with laughter, there were people smoking and drinking together. The only real indication that anything illicit was happening were the occasional pleas to keep the noise down. Otherwise, the atmosphere described could have been anywhere at any time before the pandemic hit.

According to the reporters, the most militant defiance could be found at the bar in the form of a group of drinkers who seemed to be the only guests willing to address the elephant in the room: the coronavirus restrictions each of those in attendance were contravening. Their rejections of the regulations were apparently clear in their conversation and demeanour.

The bar staff too were also bullish about what was happening. According to the report, one of the staff explained that they were prepared should the police raid the place. “We’re free!” one shouted and raised his fist heroically in the air before explaining that he had printed out the recent ruling of a Brussels judge on the unconstitutional nature of the government’s coronavirus measures. He then revealed the printout was under the bar and ready to be deployed in the case of a police intervention.

"Running this bar is indeed risky," the barman told the journalists. "The more people talk about it, the more risk we are at. Sooner or later, we're going to get caught. But as long as the Belgian state does not adopt the pandemic law, we are legally open."

Another added. "When the police come, I'll call our lawyer right away. He'll take care of it. And the next day, I'm just going to reopen. Why wouldn't I?"

"It takes some big cojones to open a bar like this," a young man at the bar reportedly said, laughing. "This is like prohibition." He told the Bruzz reporters that he worked as an intern in a hotel around the corner.

Indeed, the scene described is reminiscent of an illegal café from the time of prohibition in the United States. Around 1920, the producing and selling of alcohol was prohibited all over the country, in order to safeguard the public health of Americans. In response, so-called 'speakeasies' surfaced everywhere. Clandestine bars where the clientele could drink – in whispered tones. One hundred years later, the same phenomenon has been emerging in Brussels, albeit as a result of a very different health crisis.

Just before 22.00, some of the customers started to leave the premises in time to be home before curfew. But the majority of those present also ignored that measure as the atmosphere reportedly became more and more exuberant.

"I know it's not allowed, but we need this," one girl told the reporters. "The city needs this. My parents don't know anything, not even my friends."

Despite the willingness to push back against the restrictions and increasingly public calls for freedoms to be reinstalled, experts say it is still far too early to open the bars and cafés. "We're in the middle of the third wave,” said virologist Steven Van Gucht. “The hospitals are full. The system is under pressure: the staff have been very busy for a year. In the same way as the vaccinations, we can gradually reopen the world."

"Clandestine meetings behind closed doors are a very bad idea, especially if the windows in the store cannot be opened,” the virologist continued. “Young healthy people may not get sick themselves, but they can pass it on to a family member. The pressure has to come from the hospitals first, it's too early. If we relax, we should all do it together. In the long term, the cafes will follow."

The cafes have been officially closed since October and must remain so until at least 8 May. Brussels police officers are actively checking for this and enforcing the current rules. Operators who open in contravention of the rules risk a fine of €4,700. In addition, they have to pay the court costs as well as €250 per person present. It is not known how many fines have already been issued in Brussels for clandestinely opening a café.

The Horeca Brussels trade association, which represents the hospitality industry, has distanced itself from the choice to open.

Written by Nick Amies