Masks off: Belgium relaxes virus rules despite rise in cases

BRUSSELS (AP) — Despite the steady rise of COVID-19 cases in a country already hard-hit by the virus, Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said Wednesday that mask requirements, some attendance limits and other public health measures will be relaxed as part of a less stringent, long-term coronavirus strategy.

Wilmes said Belgium residents should learn to live with the virus but warned against a “widespread slackening” of the basic social-distancing rules.

“We are in a risk-management phase,” she said after a National Security Council meeting. “Some rules will be relaxed because they are no longer useful or tenable.”

Starting next month, Belgium no longer will require wearing a mask outdoors except in crowded places where social distancing cannot be practiced. The government also is reducing the mandatory quarantine period from 14 days to one week for people with COVID-19 symptoms who eventually test negative for the virus.

While a maximum of 10 guests will remain the rule for private gatherings, parties or weddings hosted by professional organizers won’t be subject to the limit.

“The virus is still there, but life must continue in an adapted way to try to control this epidemic,” Wilmes said.

The prime minister also announced that everyone can now have close physical contact with up to five people from outside their households each month.

“They are people that you can hug, with whom you can eat or have a drink while being very close to each other,” she said.

Wilmes’ announcement left leading Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst perplexed. Belgium reported a daily average of 1,374 new confirmed virus cases during the week of Sept. 13-19, and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients also went up.

“When you look at the numbers, it’s certainly not time to relax. One does not need to be a great virologist to predict that the figures will continue to increase in the coming weeks,” Van Ranst told Belgian broadcaster VRT.

Wilmes said Belgian authorities are working to devise an “epidemiological barometer,” a tool that would take a series of factors into account and be used to adapt virus control restrictions depending on the situation at the national, provincial and local levels.

In a move aimed at improving coordination with other EU countries, Belgium as of Friday no longer will prohibit travel to a destination classified as high risk for virus exposure.


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