'No use in waiting longer': Why Belgium changed its mind on masks in shops

'No use in waiting longer': Why Belgium changed its mind on masks in shops

An unexpected move by the Belgian government has seen face masks become mandatory in stores across the country a week before the expected launch, in an uncharacteristically proactive move in a generally regimented plan.

It took some time and a lot of back-and-forth between health experts and Belgium's government, but wearing a face mask will be made mandatory in shops, and some other indoor spaces, from Saturday.

On Thursday morning, Belgium's Superior Health Council, the scientific advisory body for the Federal Public Health Service, published advice in which it recommended making the wearing of masks mandatory in shops in Belgium.

"After that, the Prime Minister said in the plenary session in the Chamber that this advice would be discussed with the GEES (Group of Experts for the Exit Strategy) in light of the National Security Council next week," Elke Pattyn, spokesperson for PM Sophie Wilmès, told The Brussels Times.

Several health experts who are part of the GEES, however, have repeatedly stressed the importance of wearing a mask in the past, but the previous National Security Council in June stuck to making masks "highly recommended," and stopped short of an official obligation.

"It is true that in our previous advice, we strongly recommended wearing a mouth mask in shops," virologist Marc Van Ranst told Het Nieuwsblad. "We had thought that such a recommendation would suffice. But apparently, it didn't," he added.

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On Thursday afternoon, the GEES' advice, which was also in favour of in obligation, came sooner than expected, according to Pattyn. "With two pieces of official advice saying the same thing on the same day, it was decided to publish the decision as soon as possible," she said.

"Seeing as everyone was in agreement, and after a meeting with the consultative committee, there was no use in waiting any longer," Pattyn said, echoing a statement from Green MP Kristof Calvo on Thursday, who said that, in this case, "waiting another week is an eternity.”

There is increasing evidence that the coronavirus can spread through small particles floating in the air, which the World Health Organisation has also acknowledged by now.

"Face masks reduce those droplets and thus reduce the viral load in poorly ventilated areas. It took a while to convince everyone, but now the time has come," Van Ranst said.

Wilmès emphasised that offenders risk a criminal sanction, and shops that repeatedly flout the rules will have to close their doors.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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