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Updated: Our practical guide to how Belgium's coronavirus measures affect you

03:48 25/10/2020

What's the situation like at the moment?

Brussels and Wallonia currently have the highest number of infections per capita in Europe, with more than 10,000 people a day testing positive.

"We are very close to a tsunami, where we are no longer in control of what is happening," said federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke at the weekend - pointing to the worsening situation especially in Brussels and Wallonia. Prime minister Alexander De Croo added: "The situation is serious. It is worse than in mid-March, when we decided everyone should stay at home. Our priorities are the proper functioning of hospitals, schools and essential businesses."

With all of Belgium's coronavirus figures on the rise, interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem says the situation is "alarming". While only 13% of intensive care beds are currently occupied, "the doubling in intensive care is happening every 18 days. If such an increase were to continue, according to current models, we could have 1,000 patients in intensive care in November." At the virus's peak in April, there were 1,250 patients in intensive care. Van Laethem also warned that the number of confirmed daily cases could hit 10,000 by the end of the week.

The family home and schools are the main places where the virus is transmitted, according to analysis of several thousand coronavirus clusters in Wallonia by the Agency for a Quality Life, Aviq. Households were by far the most common place for transmission. Among all the non-household clusters, 46% of contaminations were traced to schools, 25% to the catering sector, 18% from universities, 9% from workplaces and 2% from creches.

Seeing people

Since 18 October, you can have "close" contact with a maximum of one person outside your household. "Close" contact means someone you kiss or hug, with whom you do not keep a 1.5-metre distance and do not wear a mask.

Your household can invite up to four other people to visit - the same four people in any two-week period. These visitors must wear a mask and keep a safe distance. Children under 12 do not count towards the total. Outdoor gatherings are also limited to four people outside your household.

A curfew is in place between midnight and 5.00 in the morning in Flanders, and from 22.00 until 6.00 in Wallonia and Brussels, until mid-November. You should stay home during these hours, except for essential outings such as going to work or a medical need.

Public events

Faced with uncertainty around coronavirus, the organisers of the Brussels Motor Show have announced that the 2021 edition is cancelled. The event hopes to be back in January 2022. The fair attracts nearly half a million visitors each year.

Christmas markets in Belgium are cancelled - but the City of Brussels has not ruled out organising a 2020 edition of Winter Wonders, albeit in a different form. Brussels Major Events, the fair's organiser, is looking at how to implement a Covid-safe version of the popular festive attraction.

Sport

All professional sports matches must be played without spectators. This applies to all professional sport, both indoor and outdoor. Sports clubs in Wallonia and Brussels are closed until 19 November.

All amateur sports fixtures for adults are cancelled nationwide. In Brussels, the ban also applies to children's sports, but training sessions are still allowed for children under 12.

Culture and museums

Theatres, cinemas, museums and cultural centres are closed until 19 November in the Brussels region.

Elsewhere, cultural venues, such as cinemas, theatres and concert halls, are limited to 200 people. Cinemas must put two seats between individuals or bubbles instead of the previous one. Some venues had previously been granted exemptions, allowing a bigger audience; these exemptions are now cancelled.

Cultural venues and organisations in Brussels can apply for a second round of emergency funding from the Brussels region. A new grant of €2,000 is available. In the first round, 246 organisations benefited. Organisations that did not apply the first time round can put in an application now and receive the full €4,000.

Cultural venues cannot sell food and drink for the next month, bringing them in line with cafes and restaurants. The measure also means that cinemas have been banned from selling popcorn or fizzy drinks. "We are stunned, it is a real blow," said Thierry Laermans, secretary general of the Federation of Belgian Cinemas. "We are already in a very problematic situation, we barely manage to make ends meet. The ban on the sale of food poses risks seriously jeopardising the entire sector and leading to bankruptcies. The sale of snacks in cinemas is exactly like a take-out meal."

Hospitals

All Belgian hospitals have moved to phase 2A of their coronavirus preparations, meaning 60% of intensive care capacity must be reserved for Covid patients no later than 2 November. This phase requires 4,800 normal beds and 1,200 intensive care beds. There's only one phase left: 2B, which accounts for 2,000 intensive care beds and 8,000 normal beds.

Several hospitals in Belgium have begun postponing non-essential consultations and treatments to free up staff to deal with coronavirus admissions. The Antwerp hospital groups Ziekenhuis Netwerk Antwerpen (ZNA) and Gasthuiszusters Antwerpen (GZA) are cancelling or postponing several operations. UZ Leuven has done the same, as it deals with an increased number of coronavirus patients from Brussels. Liège university hospital has cancelled a third of non-emergency admissions.

About 60 medical staff at Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht stopped work for 10 minutes on Monday and protested outside against worsening working conditions as coronavirus cases and hospitalisations continue to rise. One union rep said: "This is not just a Covid problem - it's a structural problem in the sector which is exacerbated by the Covid crisis. Hospital personnel are much more affected by the second wave than we were in March. Staff who test positive and are asymptomatic are told to keep working."

Speaking at the ULB lab's annual symposium, epidemiologist Marius Gilbert warned that within 14 days, coronavirus hospital occupancy could reach the same level seen back in March and early April. In some provinces, notably Hainaut and Liège, we are less than a week away from the peak seen during the first wave. While hospitals are better prepared than in the first wave, emergency healthcare services will still come under significant pressure in the weeks to come. A Liège CHU unversity hospital spokesman said: "Regarding Covid beds, we are at the same level of as in March-April." The hospital will, from Monday, turn some of its surgery wards into temporary Covid units. Some patients are having to be transferred to other hospitals within the province.

Residents in parts of Watermael-Boitsfort have resumed the nightly 20.00 clap for healthcare workers which was a common sight throughout Belgium during the first coronavirus wave.

Coronavirus testing

Belgium's nine (yes, nine) health ministers have decided to limit coronavirus tests to people who are showing symptoms. The measure applies until at least 15 November, in an attempt to ease the pressure on test centres and labs, which are struggling to keep up with demand for Covid tests. The priority groups are people with symptoms, healthcare staff and over-65s. Anyone not falling within those categories, who is told they have been in contact with someone testing positive for coronavirus, should quarantine for 10 days and only take a test if symptoms arise. Travellers returning from red zones will also no longer be required to take a coronavirus test - only the quarantine requirement will be remain.

Less than half of people tested for coronavirus receive their result within the recommended limit of 24 hours, according to new stats compiled by federal authorities. Since the beginning of October, every lab in Belgium has been obliged to provide data on how quickly coronavirus test results are supplied. On 14 October, the last date reported, 35,000 people had to wait longer than 24 hours - that's half the number of tests carried out on that day. The situation is worsening each day: on 1 October, 65% of people received their result on time.

Another pop-up coronavirus testing centre in Brussels opens its doors to the public this Thursday, on the Brussels Expo site at Heysel. Open Monday-Saturday from 9.00 to 17.00, it has capacity for 600 tests per day, eventually increasing to 1,200. Testing is by appointment - and reserved for people showing symptoms as well as vulnerable age groups. Register at brussels.testcovid.be. The new centre brings Brussels' daily coronavirus testing capacity to 5,000. The goal is to reach 9,000 by December. Other centres are at Mérode (Etterbeek), Albert (Forest) and Saint-Jean clinic on Boulevard Pachéco.

Liège university hospital's drive-in coronavirus screening centre has reopened. It closed last Thursday in order to clear a backlog of samples. CHU Liège said the testing facility would now be limited to people who are showing symptoms. Coronavirus tests for travellers planning to go on holiday will no longer be carried out there.

A new mobile coronavirus testing facility has opened on the former Caterpillar site in Gosselies, Charleroi. Up to 150 tests can be performed daily, from 10.00-13.00 and 17.00-19.00. The aim is to relieve overcrowding in other testing centres in the region.

Work

In the Brussels region, remote working is compulsory except for essential jobs that cannot be done from home. The Walloon region is asking employers and unions to ensure that remote working is strictly applied wherever possible until 19 November. Workplace inspectors will carry out spot checks to see how many people are present, and to ensure that distancing rules are respected for those who still work on-site.

Four in 10 employees in Belgium - across all sectors - are still working from home for at least part of the week, according to the latest study by human resources firm Acerta. "We are not going back to the office on a massive scale," the study notes, which found 50% more working hours being performed remotely compared to the pre-coronavirus period. "There is a clear shift in perception in favour of remote working. Many companies have also invested in technologies that support teleworking."

Self-employed workers whose income has disappeared because of the coronavirus restrictions can claim extra compensation until the end of the year. The "droit passerelle" monthly payout has been doubled, as part of a €500 million emergency funding initiative announced last week. For a single person, the monthly amount increases from €1,291 to €2,583. A self-employed worker with dependent family will receive €3,228 - up from €1,614. The measure primarily applies to people who work in shut-down business sectors such as restaurants, bars, nightclubs, fairgrounds and culture.

Eating/drinking

Restaurants, cafes and bars are closed until mid-November. The measure came into force on 19 October. Takeaways are still possible. The sale of alcohol is prohibited after 20.00, and the consumption of alcohol in public is banned 24/7 throughout Belgium.

The Brussels region will pay a €3,000 grant to all cafes and restaurants required to close for the next month due to the latest coronavirus measures announced by the federal government. The region hopes to make the payments by the end of November. Nightclubs, travel agencies and events companies in Brussels are due to receive a one-off €9,000 grant at the end of October.

Shopping

All shops in the Brussels region must close by 20.00 - except takeways which can stay open until 22.00. The requirement to go shopping alone has been reintroduced, unless accompanying a child or a vulnerable person in need of assistance.

Shops are required to limit access to one customer per 10m² of retail space. Shopping with other people is allowed, and you must wear a mask at all times. Open-air markets remain open, with one-way systems in place to avoid crowding.

A federation representing 200 Belgian retailers has appealed to the public to keep visiting stores, or they risk bankruptcy. The Belgian Luxembourg Council for Retail and Shopping Centres launched the call for "smart, safe and responsible shopping" this week. "Many of us are on the brink, especially small traders, innovative stores and start-ups," the group said. Several stores, such as Wibra, Lunch Garden and Makro, have announced job losses recently.

Trade unions representing retail workers have called on supermarkets to make the use of shopping trolleys compulsory again - to help customers keep a safe distance from each other. The unions also want stores to disinfect each trolley after use, since "it is clear that customers no longer systematically do so".

Meanwhile, supermarkets are urging customers to do their shopping alone again. "It is not an obligation, but a strong recommendation," say Colruyt, Delhaize, Carrefour, Lidl and Albert Heijn in a joint statement. Delhaize is also encouraging shoppers to plan ahead and make fewer trips to the supermarket.

All Delhaize and Colruyt supermarkets will close an hour earlier on Friday evenings, at 20.00, to make it easier to enforce the new ban on selling alcohol at night. Many supermarkets open until 21.00 on Friday evenings. Unions asked for the earlier closure as staff fear they will be faced with aggressive customers trying to buy booze after 20.00. The reduced opening hours do not automatically apply to franchised stores, such as Proxy Delhaize, which are free to choose. Carrefour will decide on Wednesday whether to follow suit.

Schools

A four-level colour coded system is in place, determining how open schools are, based on the coronavirus risk level. Schools are currently on "yellow" level, although this could soon change. All nursery and primary school students are expected to attend school full-time, regardless of the colour-coded level. Secondary school pupils are required to wear a mask at all times, as are teachers and other school staff.

Schools have extended their half-term holiday by an extra three days, faced with growing numbers of coronavirus cases. The holidays were scheduled for 2-6 November, with a return to school on Monday 9th. Instead they will be extended up to and including Wednesday 11 November, a public holiday. Classes resume on Thursday 12th.

In the Brussels region, school excursions are banned, as are holiday activity camps for over-12s.

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in French-speaking schools has more than doubled in a week, according to stats from the ONE. Last week there were 3,612 positive cases among pupils and 1,166 among staff. Some 17,429 students and 836 staff were in quarantine as a result.

Four out of 10 schoolchildren in Belgium feel uncomfortable at school due to the coronavirus risk. The survey of 1,700 families found seven out of 10 secondary school pupils found wearing a mask all day unpleasant. Half of parents answering the survey was in favour of closing secondary schools. Another third preferred a mix of distance and face-to-face learning.

Youth camps for over-12s can only organise outdoor activities. No youth camps can organise overnight stays.

Universities

Universities must limit the number of students in lecture halls to 20% of capacity, except for first-year students where 50% is allowed. In Wallonia, all face-to-face tuition has been cancelled.

The University of Ghent has moved from code orange to red, meaning all on-campus lectures are replaced with distance learning instead. KU Leuven and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) are moving from code yellow to code orange coronavirus plans, as the infection rises across the country. The new restrictions limit the number of students and professors allowed on campus. Lecture theatres with more than 150 seats may only be up to 20% full. Smaller halls with 60 to 150 seats may only accommodate 30 students at one time, to allow sufficient distancing.

After Flemish universities switched from yellow to code orange - and in some cases red - it's the turn of Francophone universities to increase the alert level. All higher education institutions in the south of the country have switched to code orange from this week. This means lecture halls must only be filled to 20% capacity. Small group workshops can continue. Schools remain on code yellow, for now.

Brussels' Dutch-speaking unversity VUB will switch to "code red" from next Monday. Staff will be asked to work from home, and lectures will be delivered remotely. An exception will apply for seminars and practical work which require the use of specialised equipment. First-year and international students will still be offered some face-to-face contact with teaching staff. University cafeterias will provide takeaways and the library will remain open.

Leuven university has set up its own contact-tracing call centre, to speed up reaching students who have been in contact with a person testing positive for coronavirus. A third of Leuven's residents are students and the university is offering free coronavirus tests at a rate of 300 per day. Medical students are carrying out the tests and manning the call centre.

Foreign travel

It's time to start looking forward to summer 2021. "We could start vaccinations in the spring," said interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem during Monday's coronavirus press conference. "The way things currently look, if nothing changes to the timeframe for the coronavirus vaccine, and with more favourable weather conditions, we should start to find a life similar to what we had before."

Belgium has updated its travel advice, adding more regions to its red list of destinations where travel is strongly discouraged and quarantine is compulsory on return. New additions to the red list are London, Berlin, Salzburg, Geneva, Zurich and the Netherlands' Zeeland province. Only two parts of Europe remain green: La Palma in Spain and Istria, Croatia.

Ryanair is planning to make more redundancies in Belgium than previously announced. The figure has risen from 80 in July, and 106 last month, to a new total of 200, staff and unions learned during a conference call on Monday. "Ryanair has once again shown its contempt for Belgian and European restructuring regulations," the unions say.

Don't all rush at once, but La Palma in Spain is the last region of Europe where Belgian residents can travel freely. The foreign ministry has updated its travel advice, with Istria in Croatia moving from green to orange. All of France is now red, meaning travel is strongly discouraged. The situation in Italy is also deteriorating. Should you have travel plans for the coming half-term holidays, it's best to check this site now.

Private events

In the Brussels region, wedding ceremonies are limited to the couple and their witnesses. Funerals are limited to 15 people.

Elsewhere, up to 200 people can attend a wedding ceremony or funeral, provided safe distancing is maintained. Receptions are only allowed after a funeral, for a maximum 40 people.

Transport

The Belgian taxi federation Febet is seeking financial support from the government after it imposed a night-time curfew from midnight to 5.00. The federation has supplied drivers with a waiver document allowing them to continue driving during the curfew hours. Febet chairman Khalid Ed-Denguir said that if the federal minister for the self-employed, David Clarnival, did not respond to the request for compensation, taxi drivers would consider a protest action on 16 November. "Our turnover has dropped by 70-80%," he said. "Yet we have been completely overlooked."

Retirement homes

Care homes in Brussels have started toughening their rules again on family visits, which are now limited to a maximum of two people per fortnight. On-site restaurants are off-limits for visitors and care homes can no longer organise excursions. In Wallonia, the limit is one visitor per fortnight.

Hotels

The Brussels government has agreed a financial aid package for the region's hotels, with grants of up to €200,000 per hotel and €800,000 maximum per company. Tourism normally generates €1.2 billion a year for the Brussels economy. The region's smallest hotels, with 18 rooms or less, will receive a flat rate €20,000. This increases by €1,100 per extra room, up to the limit.

Masks

The Brussels region has reintroduced the requirement to wear a mask in all public places.

The nationwide rule is that wearing a mask is compulsory for all over-12s, in busy places, where a safe distance cannot be maintained. This includes public transport (the vehicle and while waiting at a station/stop), shopping streets (as defined by each municipality), museums, libraries, places of worship, cinemas, theatres and concert halls. The potential fine is €250.

Charleroi has made wearing a mask compulsory in all public places, and has ordered night shops and petrol station convenience stores to close at 20.00. The measures begin on Monday. The rule on masks does not apply to children under 12 or people doing sport, including cyclists.

Namur has reintroduced the requirement to wear a mask in the city centre. Masks will also be compulsory along the banks of the Meuse and Sambre.

Belgium's federal health ministry and the Anti-Poison Centre have launched an awareness campaign, after reporting a record number of cases of domestic accidents involving disinfectant gel and other cleaning products. Bad reactions to hydroalcoholic gel increased five-fold since the coronavirus outbreak began, and incidents including bleach have doubled. The high alcohol content of disinfectant gels can lead to serious intoxication, especially in children.

The latest coronavirus figures and measures can be found on the federal government’s dedicated website, in four languages.

Written by The Bulletin