Belgium will lift the general face mask obligation and expand the use of the Covid Safe Ticket (CST), announced Prime Minister Alexander De Croo during a press conference on Friday.
"Let me start with the good news: today, 8.5 million people in Belgium have received their first vaccination, and 84% of the adults in our country have been fully vaccinated," said De Croo. "This puts us at the top in Europe, and we should be proud of that."
"Due to the high vaccination rate, the Consultative Committee was able to take another big step towards freedom from 1 October," he said.
From 1 October, the general face mask obligation in the hospitality sector and shops will be lifted, both for clients and staff.
The different regions, however, can still decide to take stricter measures than those agreed today in the 'federal base,' according to De Croo.
Across the entire country, masks will remain mandatory on public transport and in stations, in healthcare institutions (like hospitals and residential care centres) and for both medical and non-medical contact professions, such as hairdressers.
At events with more than 500 people indoors and 750 people outdoors without a Covid Safe Ticket (CST), face masks also remain mandatory.
Nightclubs and discos will be allowed to reopen from 1 October as well, provided they work with the CST, meaning that visitors must be able to prove that they are fully vaccinated, have recently tested negative or have recovered from a Covid-19 infection in the past six months.
'Epidemic of the unvaccinated'
"There is a big 'but'. There are still people who are not vaccinated, especially in Brussels," said De Croo. "Half of the population there is still not vaccinated."
"I do not want to criticise the health services. It is a laborious task to vaccinate people in the streets, at clubs, in shops and in schools," he said. "It is a good thing that Brussels has decided to make the CST more widely available."
However, where the vaccination rate is not high enough, the figures are not moving in the right direction. "We also see in the hospitals that the Covid patients are younger, and usually not vaccinated. This is becoming an epidemic of the unvaccinated."
"The intensive care units are becoming a gathering place for non-vaccinated people," De Croo said. "We cannot accept this as a society. No one has the right to voluntarily put other people at risk."
"The vaccines are safe, free and available everywhere," he stressed
Additionally, as autumn nears, the days will become shorter, meaning people will spend more time inside, De Croo said. "If you are inside, make sure there is sufficient ventilation. In some places, a CO2 meter is mandatory. So use it."
Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon said that the Flemish government will look into the regional interpretation of the measures early next week.
"However, as far as the face masks are concerned, we will probably not go any further than the 'federal base' that was agreed on," he said. "We will still discuss the use of the CST."
Walloon Minister-President Elio Di Rupo called for caution, stating that he would like people to continue to wear face masks when indoors in the region. "The Walloon government will also quickly look into the regional interpretation of the federal measures."
In the Brussels-Capital Region, there will be no relaxations, announced Minister-President Rudi Vervoort.
"Face masks will remain compulsory in shops and the hospitality industry," he said. "And, as is known, the CST will be extended. We are going to introduce the CST in the sports and hospitality sectors, among others. Huge efforts have already been made to raise the vaccination level, but there is still a lot of work to be done."
"This is also due to the urban context of Brussels, but we are appealing to the sense of responsibility of our citizens," Vervoort said. "Freedom also includes an aspect of equality, and those who do not get vaccinated are preventing others from returning to normal life."
Measures for mandatory ventilation
For Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, it is "logical that we develop our measures differently in different regions, considering the differences in the development of the epidemic and of hospitalisations."
"Solidarity is not always easy. The last mile is always the hardest," he said. "That also applies to the vaccination campaign. It has been said many times that there is still a way to go. That is not only true for Brussels, but also in other places."
"In the city of Liège, the vaccination rate is 59%. In Antwerp, the figure is 65%. Given the young population, this is not a bad figure, but it is still not enough. Just outside of Brussels, such as Machelen, it is 60%. In Vilvoorde, it is 61%," he said. "These are important municipalities where an effort has to be made. There is still work to be done."
"We had an important debate about the face masks, and I am very satisfied with the result," Vandenbroucke said. "It is important that the rules are fully enforced in Brussels and Wallonia, while we can say that in Flanders, given the vaccination coverage, we can drop this precautionary measure."
On top of that, ventilation is crucial, he stressed. "Not only to combat Covid, but also in view of the upcoming flu season. That is why there will be a regulatory framework for bars, restaurants, fitness centres, indoor sports infrastructure, discos."
"There will be obligations for ventilation, but with the possibility of guaranteeing air quality with different kinds of techniques: ventilation, purification," Vandenbroucke said.
"But at some point, they will have to prove that they can guarantee that quality. There will be a transition period so that preparations can be made," he said. "Ultimately, if there is no good solution and there are repeated violations, closing the establishment may be a last resort."
Additionally, preparations for the end of the federal phase of the management of this crisis are underway, according to De Croo.
"We can see that it would be something very complex," he added. "In any case, it will not be before the end of October, and it will depend mainly on how things evolve in the coming weeks."