The re-opening of cafe terraces from 08.00 yesterday morning had little calming effect on spirits as the cafes closed by order at 22.00. And the result was a mass of people, ignoring Covid restrictions, and clashes with police.
The gathering had been announced during the week, presenting itself as a celebration. While the square was very busy during opening hours – Cafe Belga on the corner of Flagey and the Place Sainte-Croix has what must be the largest terrace in the city – the numbers only grew after closing time, as people descended on the square from all over.
Curfew had been lifted at midnight on Friday, but the rules on gatherings of more than ten still apply. Nevertheless, police present had been briefed to tread lightly in policing those rules, as well as the ones that cover mask wearing in public and social distancing.
It soon became clear that none of the rules was going to be respected in the slightest. That had, after all, been the subtext of the call to celebration.
An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people were finally gathered on and around the two squares, with dancing and drinking from coolers, while fireworks were let off on the edge of the lakes.
Police were present in small groups, passing among the party-goers and trying to negotiate some calm, but without success. Jeering and catcalls came in return.
“I do not intend to intervene,” said Ixelles mayor Christos Doulkeridis (Ecolo) at one point. “We’ve tried that before. We could have expected this revelry. Everyone is happy with the end of the curfew.”
Communal workers moved in from 22.30 to clean up, and by 01.30 only a hardcore of about 500 party-goers remained. Police set about clearing the square and were pelted with projectiles. Water cannon was deployed.
Elsewhere in the city, the 22.00 closing time was interpreted generously, with police occasionally having to remind landlords of the new rules. Customers – not surprisingly after 201 days of drought – seemed unwilling to give up their newly-opened places.
In Leuven, meanwhile, police were forced to close the Oude Markt square – feted as the longest bar terrace in the world – after the numbers present exceeded safety limits. While the places set out were allowed to remain, anyone arriving after 20.00 was turned away, because the place was simply too busy.
“The crowd forced us to close the square, but no one has received a fine so far,” explained Mathieu Caudron, spokesperson for the local police. “There are ten additional corona teams on the ground, each patrolling in pairs. We remain clearly visible in the square and the rest of the city, and are monitoring the situation closely.”