Antwerp, Belgium’s most populous province, announced a curfew and other strict new regulations Monday as Belgium works to halt a dramatic rise in local coronavirus cases.
The curfew will be set from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., with only those going to work or the hospital allowed outside their homes. Face masks will be mandatory in all public spaces and working from home will also be compulsory, “except when it is absolutely impossible.” Governor Cathy Berx called on Belgians to not make unnecessary visits to the province and told people in Antwerp to “stay at home as much as possible.” Shops and restaurants will remain open.
Antwerp is bearing the brunt of what is feared to be the start of a second wave in the country, with the province now accounting for almost half of Belgium’s total new cases.
The new regional rules coincide with a tightening of national measures announced by Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès earlier in the day. Social bubbles will be reduced to five people and event sizes will be halved to 100 people inside and 200 outside. Unlike the prior rules, these five people need to stay the same. The new measures will come into effect on July 29 and are set to be around for at least four weeks. Group excursions are limited to 10 people.
Working from home is also being “strongly recommended,” Wilmès said. People will also have to shop alone and should not spend more than 30 minutes in a shop.
Wilmès also noted “serious concerns” about the situation in Antwerp. “The urgency of the situation in Antwerp requires strong measures that must be taken immediately,” she said.
The new rules Monday came just a few days after Wilmès mandated face masks in more public places and more stringent contact tracing methods, with bars and restaurants having to take down contact details of customers.
Experts welcomed the new national restrictions. Marc Van Ranst, a professor of virology at KU Leuven, said that if Belgium wanted to avoid a general lockdown “we now have one chance to do it,” according to De Morgen. Herman Goossens, a professor of microbiology at the University of Antwerp, agreed, saying it appeared Belgium’s security council had followed the advice of scientists.
Numbers in Belgium continue to rise, with an average increase of 71 percent in the last recorded seven days, July 17-23, compared to the previous seven days, July 10-16. There was an average of 279 new cases a day, with this figure peaking on July 22, when there were 542 new infections.
While other countries such as the U.K. have recently implemented local lockdowns in response to a spike in case numbers in a particular area, until now Belgium has refrained from such measures. The prospect of local lockdowns was raised following a national security council meeting on July 23, but officials ultimately decided that if mayors wanted to impose more stringent measures, they first needed to consult with regional authorities and governors of provinces.
While the national government has said there’s been an increase in case numbers all over the country, doctors have cautioned that the lower figures in Brussels could actually be down to underreporting. GPs are calling on the government to increase space and staff for testing in the capital, according to the Brussels Times.
This article has been updated with the announcement of new measures in Antwerp.