In a normal world, today would have been the first day of the Easter holiday for schools, and the occasion for many families to go on holiday.
But this is no longer a normal world, and this weekend’s forecast of sunny weather has brought the police out in force to stop people from travelling to the coast, to the Ardennes and to the other typical beauty spots in Belgium.
From opposite ends of the country, the governors of Luxembourg and West Flanders provinces issued a joint communique calling on Belgians to stay at home this weekend rather than visit their second home or holiday let. The message reminded the public of the measures in force to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19).
“The failure to respect these measures will lead to tough sanctions, in the form of judicial fines ranging from €250 to €4,000,” governors Carl Decaluwé (West Flanders) and Olivier Schmitz (Luxembourg) warned.
The six police zones in Brussels are also on high alert, ready to hand out fines for anyone breaking the rules. And while the clear guidelines asked for by police have still to be agreed, the basic principle remains unchanged: stay at home as far as possible, except to go outside for essential visits and for exercise. And while outside, observe the rules on social distancing.
The point about exercise is likely to be the one that involves the most differences of appreciation. What is a reasonable distance if running or cycling? Even government ministers cannot agree. The matter will be left to the discretion of police officers, with inevitable disputes to come later.
Already, the Comité P, the standing committee which oversees the police force, has received 27 official complaints regarding police behaviour in enforcing the measures of the lockdown. The complaints come mainly from people who have been issued a fine which they consider unfair.
So strong is the attraction of a weekend at the coast that many owners of second properties by the sea have made official requests to have their second home declared their official residence, to allow them to go there legally.
The communal authorities have warned, however, that the approach is unlikely to be successful. Police at the coast simply have no time to spend dealing with requests, and the chance is slim that requests for a change of residence will be approved.
“But I understand the point of view of people,” admitted Daphné Dumery, mayor of Blankenberge.
“Our services can’t keep up with the flood of applications,” said a spokesperson for the commune of Knokke-Heist, which has received about 100 requests in the past three weeks.
Ostend’s police commissioner Frank Van Reunbroeck explained to De Tijd why the police are particularly vigilant.
“If everyone was to come to their second home, the mayors would see their populations suddenly double. That means not only a potential strain on the hospitals in the event of a sudden outbreak of the virus, it also makes it difficult for the police to make plans. Now, every zone knows how many people there are, and how they can manage the observance of the corona measures.”
Nevertheless, no matter how strict the police set out to be, there are always those who come with an excuse, another police chief explained.
“We get requests to make an exception: from people who say they have to feed their goldfish, or that they’ve left the heating on. The answer is always no.”