Belgium, severely hit by COVID, avoids full lockdown

Fourth generation tour boat operator Michiel Michielsens drives his electric boat down a canal in Bruges, Belgium, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Europe’s leanest summer tourist season in history is starting to draw to a close, six months after the coronavirus hit the continent. COVID-19 might tighten its grip over the coming months, with losses piling up in the tens of billions of euros across the 27-nation European Union. In the Belgian city of Bruges, white swans instead of tourist boats rule the canals, hotels stand empty and museums count their losses.

On Friday, Belgium stopped short of confining people to their homes. Still, it tightened restrictions on social life and businesses to prevent a breakdown of the health system as the country records the highest COVID-19 infections in Europe.

With the resurgent pandemic ravaging the continent, France and Germany announced new lockdowns, including severe restrictions on people’s movement in the former. Other countries in the 27-nation European Union are also curbing daily lives.

Belgium, home to the NATO and EU’s headquarters, announced tighter restrictions on social contacts and the closure for six weeks from Monday of businesses like hairdressers and shops, which provide services not considered essential. It also extended the November school holidays by an extra week.

Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the country of 11 million people otherwise faced a breakdown of its health system.

“We are moving in the direction of reinforced confinement with a single objective: to prevent health care from creaking under pressure that is already immense today,” De Croo told a news conference.

“These are the last-chance measures.”

But de Croo did not order a full repeat of the spring lockdown even though Belgium’s COVID-19 numbers are the worst in the Britain, EU, and four more associated countries in Europe.

In the second half of October, Belgium reported an average of 1,600 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice as many as in France.

According to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, it also has one of Europe’s highest mortality rates.

The latest spike in confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus takes the total number of infections since the beginning of the outbreak to 392,258 in Belgium, according to data from the Sciensano health institute.

This month the country has already placed a night curfew and closed gyms, restaurants, bars, and cultural spaces. But a patchwork of disjointed measures adopted by Belgium’s regions, which have broad powers, in addition to federal action, has confused.

Hospital admissions dipped slightly on Thursday to 673, from 743 patients hospitalized with the virus the day before. However, the level is still above the peak of the pandemic’s first wave, Sciensano figures showed.

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