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Social distancing: How close is too close?

17:31 19/03/2020

While police across Belgium have been patient during the first couple of days of the government’s second round of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, they won’t be for long.

Agents have been patrolling the streets on foot, breaking up groups of people. “We are approaching people in the street, asking if they are members of the same family and making sure they are staying far enough away from each other,” Brussels-Ixelles police zone spokesperson Ilse Van de Keere told Bruzz.

The official rule: Keep 1.5 metres away from anyone who does not live in the same home as you. And do not take to the streets with more than one other person. Families out together are an exception.

But what the government and police really want you to do is stay at home unless you are on your way to the grocery store or a few other places that are allowed to stay open, such as pharmacies and press shops.

Pole position

“We’re not trying to play gestapo here, but there will be sanctions against offenders,” said Ine Van Wymersch of the public prosecutor’s office in Brussels. This is especially true for businesses, she said – like cafes that secretly let customers in – but also for individuals.

“If someone is caught two or three times in a park, for example, flouting the ban on gathering in groups, they won’t get any sympathy from us. We are being strict not because we want to, but because we have to fight this virus.”

The same is true in other cities: Police in Leuven intervened in 40 illegal groups of people since yesterday morning, and in Diest agents are equipped with a pole to show people just what 1.5 meters looks like.

“No, we’re not smacking people with the pole,” joked Diest mayor Christophe De Graef, “we’re just using it to show how far away from each other people need to stand.” He told VRT that far too few people in the street were respecting the distance. “The pole gives them a good idea how far 1.5 meters really is.”

Forest bathing

Finally, forest rangers have also been given the power this week to administer fines to those not respecting the regulations in nature areas. Many people have already taken to walking paths in woodlands as a way to get out of the house.

“It’s relatively obvious to determine members of the same family,” ranger Björn Deduytsche told VRT. “If I see a group of people who are all the same age, then alarms go off.”

There was confusion after the government announcement on Tuesday evening about guidelines around outdoor activity. To be clear: It is fine to go walking or jogging, whether in the city or in a natural area. But you must go alone or with no more than one other person. Parents with children are an exception. Should you run into other walkers or joggers, stay at least 1.5 metres away from them.

And you shouldn’t travel a distance to take part in recreational activities. If you pop over to the local nature reserve in your car, that’s fine. If you drive an hour to walk on the beach, that’s not.

The government also asks that people not hang around in outdoor areas – even if the weather is fine, as it was yesterday. If you aren’t getting any exercise, go home. That includes children playing; all playgrounds are closed until at least 6 April.

Photo courtesy RobTV

Written by Lisa Bradshaw