The lifting of the mandatory face masks in shops and hospitality establishments in Flanders from 1 October is a cause for concern for virologist Steven Van Gucht, who fears that it is still a little too early.
The Consultative Committee on Friday allowed the regions to largely end the face mask obligation, against the recommendation of the GEMS expert groups advising the government.
In Flanders, wearing a mask will only remain mandatory on public transport, in care institutions and for contact professions such as hairdressers.
“I would very much have liked to have waited until October and November,” Van Gucht said on VRT’s television programme ‘Terzake’. “I think we could have relaxed the measures for face masks with much more peace of mind then.
“Face masks do not cost much, we do not have to wear them in very many places anymore,” he said. “I would have preferred to wait a bit longer. There is still a difficult period ahead.”
For virologist Marc Van Ranst, the abolition of compulsory masks in the Flemish hospitality industry and shops is “a calculated risk.”
“If you were to ask the virologists – and they did – we would have preferred it to be a bit later or a bit slower, as has always been the case,” he said on Flemish radio. “But those are political decisions, of course.”
These relaxations will make a lot of people very happy, according to Van Ranst. “We could have waited another month, or made the shop and hospitality staff continue to wear a mask, but at some point, you have to dare to jump.”
However, with examples like Israel and the United States in mind, where a face mask obligation was first lifted and then reintroduced, he also remains cautious.
“We have to avoid that yo-yo effect. Hopefully, we will be rid of it forever, but that remains to be seen,” Van Ranst said.
Additionally, despite the high vaccination rate in Flanders, Van Gucht is “apprehensive” about a fourth wave of infections.
“The risks in Flanders are a lot smaller than in Wallonia and certainly than in Brussels,” he said. “But it also depends on a lot of other factors. How do people deal with [the relaxations], and how will employers deal with them?”
According to several predictive models from biostatisticians, Belgium still needs to watch out for a fourth wave, causing vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme to wonder if Flanders’ vaccination figures will be able to buffer that.
“With measures in some situations, such as masks in a number of places and the Covid Safe Ticket, will this be enough? If so, the wave may be one that meanders, and that we can handle with our healthcare,” he said. “That has always been the intention.”