The hospitality sector in Belgium is furious about the authorities’ late announcement that bars and restaurants will not be allowed to place plastic screens between tables, just one day ahead of the reopening.
Unlike last summer, the installation of plexiglass or plastic screens between terrace tables, so they can be closer together to accommodate more customers, will not be allowed this time.
"This is a heavy blow, mentally and financially," said Kevin Vanderauwera, chairman of Horeca Leuven. "Many have now invested in plexiglass screens. This is a crying shame."
"We are now faced with a fait accompli," he said, adding that he is very disappointed about the government's late clarification, as that makes it very difficult for bar and restaurant owners to adapt in time for the reopening.
"It goes without saying that public health comes first, and we do understand that it is not allowed, but this announcement comes very late," Vanderauwere added.
According to him, reopening terraces is not as profitable without plexiglass screes, as "a large part of the capacity of a terrace disappears."
"On top of that, it seems that the weather will be a spoilsport as well," Vanderauwera said, adding that it is regrettable that the decision to reopen will now depend on the weather conditions for such a large part.
In Leuven, about 80% of hospitality businesses were expected to reopen their doors on Saturday. "Their refrigerators are full, the staff has been called up and reservations have been taken," he said. "For many, it will be a moral obligation to open again. The customers are asking for it, and the staff is also asking for it."
Speaking on Flemish radio on Friday morning, Matthias De Caluwe of Horeca Vlaanderen agreed with Vanderauwera, saying that the regulations were the same as last summer, when the plastic screens were included in the protocol.
"Those protocols are validated by the right ministers, and were on the government website," he said. "The new Ministerial Decree has not yet been published. Hopefully, the minds will still mature and this will still be adjusted."
The fact that the Decree, which will anchor the final rules into law, has not been published yet on the day before it is meant to go into force, has also been the subject of criticism.
According to Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, the government has not sufficiently communicated with local authorities on the legality of terraces reopening.
“As of midnight, the mayors must apply a ministerial decree that has not yet appeared. We have been in this crisis for over a year…,” he tweeted.
In the meantime, the Mayor of Ghent, Mathias De Clerq, responded to the last-minute change to the protocol, saying this would not be immediately enforced in Ghent.
“Hospitality operators have prepared themselves in good conscience in accordance with those protocols. We are going to give them time to adjust," he tweeted. "Our catering coaches will enter into a dialogue with the owners."