Eyeing a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Belgium, the government moved on Thursday to mandate the wider use of face masks and a requirement that bars and restaurants keep contact details of customers.
Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès announced the new measures following a meeting of the national security council.
The tightened rules follow a significant rise in Belgian cases since last week. On average, 193 new cases are now registered every day, with a peak of over 370 cases on July 20. The reproduction number has risen above one.
“The latest numbers should not make us panic, but we should take them seriously,” Wilmès said.
The spike was “not abnormal” but “should stay under control,” she said. “Absolute prudence is required or we will need to take very tough measures.”
From Saturday, masks will be mandatory in public buildings, bars, restaurants and hotels, except when people are seated. Masks will also be required in some outdoor spaces such as markets, shopping streets and other places where many people gather.
More broadly, masks are recommended wherever it’s difficult to keep sufficient distance.
Currently, masks are only mandatory in indoor public spaces, such as shops, cinemas, places of worship, museums and libraries.
Meanwhile, contact bubbles — the number of people Belgians are allowed to have interactions with on a weekly basis — remain restricted to 15.
“If everybody respects the rule of 15, we do not need to limit further,” Wilmès said.
This cap has been controversial, as some experts had proposed that the government scale it back to 10. Epidemiologist Pierre Van Damme argued in an interview with VTM Nieuws on July 22 that the bubble wasn’t being applied correctly.
However, Wilmès said that the national security council “had a serious discussion about this, because the resurgence was caused by people who did not respect the 15.”
“People who did respect 15 would be punished if we now limited bubbles to 10,” she added.
In addition, restaurants and bars will be obliged to keep an email address or phone number of clients to facilitate contact tracing — for restaurants, only one person per table needs to supply contact information. These data cannot be used for any other purpose than combating the virus and should be deleted after 14 days.
In some cases, local lockdowns could be recommended. If mayors want to impose additional measures, they need to consult with regional authorities and governors of provinces to ensure consistency.
The new measures come as figures indicate that the epidemic is once again on the increase in Belgium, with the average case numbers for the last seven days recorded increasing by 91 percent. Hospital admissions are up by 40 percent.
While the region of Antwerp has seen most of the new infections, case numbers are rising in all provinces except Walloon Brabant. Young adults between 20 and 30 years old are most affected.
The virus is now spreading among the general population, confirmed Boudewijn Catry, an epidemiologist at Belgium’s national public health institute.
“Where we initially saw that it was concentrated around certain situations, there is now increasing confirmation that the virus is spreading among the general population,” he told VRT NWS.
Local leaders have also complained that they don’t have the data they need to source the origins of local outbreaks.
“As a local government, we only get figures at the urban level, so that targeted actions are not possible,” Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever told De Morgen. “It is actually incomprehensible.”