The seafront at Middelkerke at the Belgian coast was alive with restaurant customers eating and drinking takeaway meals, seated at tables provided by rebel mayor Jean-Marie Dedecker.
Dedecker, who belongs to no political party, was making good on his promise to open the terraces in his town on 1 May, come what may. According to the law, terraces may not officially open for service until 8 May.
But Dedecker had found a loophole. His municipal council passed an order suspending the permits for all terraces on the seafront which, his legal team advised him, returned the entire promenade to public control.
The council then moved in with 200 tables and 800 chairs, setting them out for four people each at a proper social distance from each other. Members of the public were free to order a takeaway from any of the seafront businesses, and enjoy it at one of the mayor’s tables.
Only table service was missing. A team of volunteers was charged with clearing away any waste left behind and cleaning the tables before new customers could take their place.
Yesterday at around lunchtime, the tables were fully in use, and Dedecker allowed himself a brief victory parade as customers using the tables applauded.
“The sun is out and people can stay outdoors in a safe way” he said. “They see it as a deliverance. I could have waited another week, but it is of great symbolic significance for these people.”
The tables will remain in place until restaurants are allowed to open their own terraces next Saturday.
A tribunal of first instance in Brussels on Friday ruled that the order to close down the country’s restaurants – and the penalties attached to those who fail to do so – are illegal. The government has been given 30 days to comply, or face a penalty of €250 a day paid to each of the 52 restaurant owners who brought the action.
A ministerial decree from home affairs minister Annelies Verlinden (CD&V), the court said, is not sufficient to back up the restriction of liberties, and the application of judicial penalties.
Prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) said the government would study the judgement, but in any case the restaurants will open their terraces next weekend, while the new pandemic law, which would supply the correct legal backing for such measures, is making its way through parliament as quickly as possible.