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    Belgium in Brief: The Mayors & The Masks

    Credit: Radio 2/Facebook/Belga

    We’ve reached another day of the seemingly impossible debate on masks in Belgium, and it’s just getting started.

    Recent news – here – has shown that the different communes of Brussels have stepped up to develop ways to get masks, while regional policy continues to develop ahead of the 4 May deadline.

    This ongoing saga over masks sits at odds with the strong recommendation that they should be used in public places from 4 May.  Justice Minister Koen Geens has already said it would be “impossible” to get everyone in Belgium a face mask in time for next week.

    Instead, Geens has said that citizens could make their own face masks or use a scarf or a bandana to cover their mouths, as public transport companies announced they would “strictly” enforce the regulation.

    For now, let’s have a look at the news. Refuse staff do the haka, a potential date to go back to school, and the latest figures.

    With so much information, and so little time to catch up before it potentially changes again, here are some of the top stories from around the country to get you up to speed.

    Belgium in Brief is a free daily roundup of the top stories to get you through your lunch break conversations. To receive it straight to your inbox every day, sign up below:



    1. 170 new deaths, 174 hospital admissions in Belgium

    525 new people have tested positive for the new coronavirus (Covid-19) in Belgium, confirmed the Federal Public Health Service during a press conference on Wednesday.

    This brings the total number of cases in Belgium, since the beginning of the pandemic, to 47,859. The total reflects all people in Belgium who have been infected, and includes confirmed active cases as well as patients who have since recovered, or died from the consequences of the virus.

    263 of the newly-infected people live in Flanders, 174 live in Wallonia, and 75 live in Brussels. The FPS does not yet have further information on the place of residence of 13 other people. Read more.

    2. In a race to deliver face masks to citizens, Brussels mayors go solo

    Authorities in Brussels are in a race against the clock to ensure residents have access to face masks by the time Belgium enters the first deconfinement stage on 4 May.

    From then on, the use of face masks will be obligatory in public transport and recommended in public places and in spaces where social distancing cannot be appropriately implemented.

    But with less than a week before that date, there is little clarity and coordination among officials regarding how exactly to get people their masks, despite the announcement of mass purchases at both the regional and federal levels. Read more.

    3. Why the number of new patients is not dropping

    The number of new patients infected with the coronavirus admitted to hospital per day is stabilising around 200 because there are two parallel epidemics at the moment, according to professor Steven Van Gucht.

    The number of new hospital admissions remains stable, but “has not gone down for a few days now,” said virologist Marc Van Ranst on VTM on Saturday, stressing that the number “needs to keep going down […] to under 100 per day” if stores are to be allowed to reopen, as planned, on 11 May.

    The number of daily admissions is important because it is one of the conditions that need to be met to transition into the next phase of the exit plan out of Belgium’s lockdown, along with the occupancy rate of the intensive care beds. Read more.

    4. 150 refuse collectors perform the haka in Ghent

    Refuse collectors in Ghent have received a moment of internet stardom after creating a video of around 150 workers in the city performing their take on the haka in support of everyone facing the coronavirus.

    The haka – perhaps most commonly known through the connection to the All Blacks rugby team – is originally performed by the Maoris of New Zealand.

    “Last Friday we went to the management with the request to make a nice gesture on the Sint-Pietersplein,” employee Dirk Van Belle told VRT. “Everything went very fast. Three days later we are here with 150 employees and 70 vehicles. We are a big family.” Read more.

    5. Lufthansa “will not abandon Brussels Airlines”

    Carsten Spohr, the CEO of the group of companies around the German airline Lufthansa, has written to Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès to assure her than his group has no intention of letting Brussels Airlines go.

    Brussels Airlines is currently in talks with the government over state support for the airline, which says it has only enough resources to last until the end of May. It is reported to be asking for €290 million.

    “It is important that we remain profitable and that we can maintain our competitive position as a group,” Spohr writes. Read more.

    6. Lockdown: certain students set to return to school on 29 May

    The education trade unions, umbrella organisations and Flemish Minister for Education Ben Weyts agreed to several relaxations of the rules concerning the reopening of schools on 15 May, on Tuesday.

    Schools will gradually reopen from Friday 15 May, when the first and second grade of primary education and the 6th and 7th grade of secondary education can restart.

    A week later on 22 May, there will be an evaluation. If the result is positive, schools can decide to also start the second and/or fourth grade of secondary education from 29 May. Read more.

    7. Only 1 in 4 drink more during lockdown

    Belgium’s lockdown has seen around 25% of French-speaking Belgians increase their alcohol consumption, a new study by university UCLouvain has found.

    On the whole, however, there is no general increase in alcohol consumption during the lockdown. 46% of respondents reported a stable level of alcohol consumption and 29% reported they were drinking less than before the lockdown. Read more.

    Jules Johnston
    The Brussels Times