A Belgian government decree extending coronavirus restrictions until March 1 is stirring commotion in a country that has gotten its infection numbers under relative control.
The government published the decree Tuesday without further communication — and the decision was met with disbelief by citizens and businesses expecting a faster relaxation of rules.
“People need a perspective and motivating communication,” said Hans Maertens, CEO of the business trade union Voka, on VRT news. “Restrictions should not be extended on the sly.”
Belgians are allowed to have only one close contact outside the household. In Wallonia and Brussels, there’s a nightly curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and in Flanders, from midnight to 5 a.m. Groups meeting outside are limited to four people. All bars, cafés and restaurants have been closed since the end of October, as are hair dressers and other “contact professions.” Schools and shops, however, are open.
These relatively tough measures, taken together, have helped Belgium flatten its curve relative to other countries — but not to the level set by the government that would allow relaxations.
The confusion started Friday, when Belgium’s Consultative Committee decided to maintain current lockdown measures without communicating until when that would be.
“As always, we need an end date for these decrees, and in this case it is set on March 1, which is comparable to previous decrees, which also applied for six weeks,” Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told Radio 1 Wednesday.
It’s key to extend these measures beyond the carnival season, she added, because citizens and the travel sector wanted clarity for holiday plans. But she said other adjustments in the meantime “aren’t excluded.”
Later on Wednesday, Verlinden told VRT news: “I should certainly offer my apologies in the name of the government. This communication did not run very clearly, but I want to underline [that] was never the intention. The previous government decree expired on January 15 and we needed to take a decision.”
The Consultative Committee meets again on January 22, and there’s a chance it will revisit some of these measures.
Brussels, meanwhile, might be sticking with a tougher approach to contain its own recent spike in numbers. The minister president of the Brussels Region, Rudi Vervoort, issued a statement Wednesday that the nightly curfew, the mask requirement, the 8 p.m. closure of shops, and the prohibition on public alcohol consumption would be maintained until March 1.
This alert has been updated with a more recent quote from Verlinden and a reference to the next government committee meeting on January 22.