Belgium enters first day of exit strategy as deaths fall below 100

Summary

Phase 1A of Belgium’s exit from coronavirus measures in place for the last seven weeks kicks off today, with the hope that the number of hospitalisations will not increase

Intensive care is ‘most crucial indicator’

Belgium enters the first phase of its exit strategy today, gradually easing off the coronavirus lockdown measures in place since 14 March. Changes from today include some industries starting up again and facemasks required in public transport.

While most shops are allowed to open only next week, all DIY and garden shops were allowed to open a couple of weeks ago. They will remain open and will be joined by fabric shops, which are allowed to open as of today. Fabric shops were chosen so that people can buy supplies to make facemasks.

To that end, facemasks are required on all public transport – buses, trams, metro and trains – as of today. Eurostar and Thalys have also announced that facemasks are required aboard their trains as of today.

Facemasks will soon become more available to those who find that their local pharmacy is always sold out: Vending machines are being placed in more than 100 trains stations across the country and supermarkets will be allowed to sell facemasks as of today.

Public transport users who do not yet have a facemask can get away with simply covering their mouth and nose with a shawl or other kind of fabric. Those not covering their nose and mouth risk a €250 fine. The requirement applies to anyone over the age of 12.

Workers welcomed back

Also today, many industries and B2B businesses may resume activities, under strict hygiene and social distancing conditions. Only people who cannot work from home should be asked to return to work. Teleworking remains the norm for those who can do so.

As of today, people are also allowed to take part in outdoor exercise with two other people instead of just one. This should always be the same two people, and those not living under the same roof should practise social distancing.

People are also now allowed to drive to a location to get some exercise, though the government asks that people are reasonable about the distance. A 15-minute drive to a more rural area is fine; travelling from East Flanders to Limburg, for instance, is not.

Some sport facilities are open to allow for more options, such as kayak rentals and tennis clubs. Lessons may or may not have resumed, depending on the club.


The government also announced last week that families were being given an extra two months of parental leave. This allows parents, including foster parents, to take paid leave to care for children who are not in school. It is open to employees with contracts, not the self-employed, and must be taken between 1 May and 30 June following approval by the employer.

Hospitals, meanwhile, are now scheduling appointments for non-emergency procedures and consultations. Surgeries that were postponed can be carried out as of next week.

Residents are asked to continue to practice social distancing and to wear a facemask in any situation where this is difficult. Other measures in force since 14 March remain: No visits or coming together in groups and stay home as much as possible.

This is the first day of Belgium’s exit strategy, which will be carried out gradually in several phases. All relaxing of measures depends on the continued improvement in the number of people admitted to hospital and to intensive care.

There are still too many patients in intensive care. It needs to come down further

- Virologist Steven Van Gucht

The number of deaths in Belgium tumbled below 100 a day to 77 at the weekend for the first time since the measures were introduced in mid-March. Currently, 3,056 people are hospitalised with Covid-19 and 674 people are in intensive care. That’s nearly half the number of patients who were in intensive care during the peak of infections on 8 April.

The intensive care figures “are the most crucial indicator” for relaxing the measures, virologist Steven Van Gucht said at a morning press conference last week. “Every patient who needs it must have access to intensive care. At the same time, we are working to get back to a normal intensive care situation. That means that regular intensive care personnel can handle the workload without being reinforced with personnel from other departments.”

At this point, he said, there are “still too many patients in intensive care” to reach that goal. “It needs to come down further.”

To date, 7,844 people in Belgium have died from the coronavirus.

Photos, from top: ©James Arthur Gekiere/BELGA, ©Vgajic/Getty Images