Belgium will begin easing coronavirus restrictions over the coming weeks starting next Monday, when schools will start to reopen and a ban on non-essential travel will be lifted, the government said Wednesday.
Certain businesses like hairdressers will also start to reopen the week after, while outdoor dining at bars and restaurants will be allowed from May 8.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced the plans after several hours of intense negotiations with national and regional ministers responsible for public health and other relevant areas.
“We have chosen a cautious and realistic approach where we bet on trust,” De Croo said at a press conference.
School reopenings will begin Monday with kindergarten, primary school students and those in the first two years of secondary education allowed back on-site. All other secondary school students will continue to attend hybrid classes. University students will be allowed to attend classes on-site one day a week. Exams will be taken on-site.
All secondary school students will be allowed back on-site starting May 3, pending a re-evaluation of the situation at the end of the month.
When non-essential travel restrictions are lifted next Monday, those returning from areas deemed as “red zones” due to high levels of infections will have to quarantine for seven days upon arrival, with a mandatory coronavirus test on days 1 and 7. There will be no exemption for travelers already vaccinated.
Businesses such as hairdressers that are considered non-essential and have direct contact with customers will then start to reopen the following Monday, April 26. It will also no longer be necessary to make appointments to shop at non-essential stores from this point.
The government will also that day expand the number of people allowed to attend outdoor social gatherings, from the current limit of four to a maximum of 10.
On May 8, Belgium will launch its so-called “outdoor plan” to allow cultural activities, religious services and sports. Bars, cafés and restaurants will also be able to open with outdoor seating only — a hard-won compromise between officials who had called for more caution in easing the rules and those who pushed to offer more support to the restaurant industry.
The current curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. will be replaced starting May 8 with a ban on outdoor gatherings of more than three people in the evenings. Belgian residents will also again be allowed to host two people from the same household inside their home.
The issue of reopening bars and restaurants had been fiercely debated, with some politicians pushing for a reopening of outdoor dining on May 1, and others insisting it should be postponed to May 15. Those pushing for a quicker reopening included Flanders’ state premier Jan Jambon and Francophone socialist party leader Paul Magnette, while De Croo and Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke were more reluctant to open up sooner.
A complete reopening of the hospitality sector is not expected until June.
Belgium has been under stricter rules for three weeks now in an attempt to curb a spike in coronavirus cases, after the government implemented a so-called Easter pause announced March 24. Although the number of infections is currently decreasing in the country, the number of deaths is still rising and hospitals are reporting high numbers of coronavirus patients in intensive care.
The last time the government announced plans for reopening, at the beginning of March, a surge in infections caused by the so-called British variant of the virus ultimately prompted officials to reverse course.