Coronavirus: mayors, universities, music venues beat federal leaders to the punch
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    Coronavirus: mayors, universities, music venues beat federal leaders to the punch

    From schools and universities to local mayors and the Catholic Church, a range of actors in Belgium is no longer waiting for official government advice to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. © Belga

    Local authorities, event organisers, universities and even the Catholic Church have stopped waiting for the federal government to roll out measures against the coronavirus pandemic and taken matters into their own hands.

    As federal leaders’ continue to hold off drastic containment measures to halt the spread of the outbreak, a number of public and private institutions have started responding to the mounting levels of public concern.

    “It is a matter of civic responsibility to the artists and to our audience,” Jerry Aerts, the head of a major international arts centre in Antwerp said, announcing the cancellation of all events in the venue until the end of the month.

    Aerts is one of several public and private actors that have chosen to take action as government leaders emerged from a meeting on the country’s response to the coronavirus issuing non-enforceable advise, even as the public demanded stricter action.

    Cities, municipalities, provinces

    Mayors and governors in Belgium have issued measures ranging from cancelling public events to ordering all non-essential public services to shut down.

    In a reaction labelled “disproportionate,” by federal authorities, the mayor of the Brussels municipality of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert was among the first to issue locally enforceable measures to halt the virus, issuing a police order on 1 March barring “high-risk area” returnees from a range of public and private establishments, including schools.

    On Thursday, the coastal town of Knokke-Heist followed suit, announcing a ban on all indoor and outdoor events and also shutting down leisure venues such as swimming clubs and libraries, in a decision set to hurt the resort destination just ahead of the Easter holidays.

    The measures, which also include the shutting down of all worshipping sites, will remain in place until the of April, with the town’s mayor, Leopold Lippens saying he had decided to act as “they do nothing at the federal level.”

    In a move announced “pending a federal or regional” action plan, the city of Antwerp said all non-essential public services and cultural and sports venues would close down until the end of March.

    The mayor of the student city of Leuven also said that it would close down all government-managed buildings from 5:00 PM, in a move that includes museums, sports halls, swimming pools and youth and community centres.

    The governor of West Flanders has also ordered all public events to be cancelled, including those with less than 1,000 attendants, in a step-up of the federal government’s advise, which concerned only indoor events with more than 1,000 people.

    Schools, universities

    All Francophone universities jointly announced that they would shut down lecture halls as a preventive measure to protect students and teaching staff, La Libre reports.

    The measure will come into immediate effect, running from 13 March and until 18 April, and will see the universities turn to video conferences to replace in-person lectures.

    The decision, which also includes the postponement or cancellation of all non-essential teaching or research activities, will not mean that the campuses will be shut down but will have “reduced” activity.

    A number of Dutch-speaking universities are also taking measures to reduce risks of contagion, including the KU Leuven which announced Wednesday that it would teach online “as much as possible.”

    The Francophone University Catholique de Louvain also moved to cancel all extracurricular events, both on and off-campus, from Thursday and until 19 April.

    A university college in Hasselt and international schools in Brussels and Antwerp have also announced that they would be closing down for periods ranging from two to three weeks.

    Events, cultural and religious venues

    On Thursday, a slew of event organisers and cultural centre managers, ranging from museums and art centres to music venues and movie theatres announced a string of postponements and cancellations.

    At least seven cultural or music venues in Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp all said they were pulling the plug on their events, upending their agendas for the remainder of the month of March.

    Several public events were also scrapped in Brussels, including the Museum Night Fever as well as the Affordable Arts Fair, which was postponed to September.

    The CINEMATEK, an art-house cinema in Brussels, announced on Thursday that it was suspending all screenings until further notice.

    The BOZAR arts centre in downtown Brussels said some concerts and events could be postponed or cancelled but kept their exhibits, bookshop and restaurant open.

    The Catholic Church in Belgium also went one step beyond the official advise, and announced that from this weekend and until 3 April no liturgical celebrations would be held in the entire country.

    The church said that marriages, baptisms and funerals could be exempted provided that the number of attendants was limited, adding that church buildings would nevertheless remain open during regular Sunday morning mass.

    The federal government is expected to announce new measures following a meeting on Thursday evening.

    Gabriela Galindo
    The Brussels Times