Printed masks put smile on Belgian faces as lockdown ends


Brussels (AFP)

Belgium was all smiles as lockdown rules were eased on Monday and many cafes and restaurants reopened -- even for some of those wearing masks.

Diners and drinkers could return to their favourite tables, as long as they kept their distance, but servers still have to wear protective facemasks.

The same is true in hospitals, still dealing with a dwindling but ongoing stream of coronavirus infections, where nurses and doctors try to reassure patients from behind a protective cover.

That's where some young Belgian entrepreneurs jumped in to convert their "Cheesebox" photobooth to take a shot of your lower face and welcoming smile, and print it on a mask.

The process takes on a couple of minutes and produces a realistic enough picture to cheer regulars at a Brussels restaurant, happy to see their favourite chefs and waiting staff again after almost three months.

"In hospitals, care homes and some businesses, a medical mask can sometimes seem dehumanising," explained Charles de Bellefroid, once of the co-founders of the company that built and delivered the machine.

"By giving the doctor or the carer the true look of a face, patients feel better," he said. "Let's be clear. These aren't medical masks but they're not a gimmick. It's a double cotton layer and filter. They meet safety standards."

Brugmann University Hospital, which specialises in childhood medicine, has been an early customer for the concept.

"With a mask it's hard to greet a patient with a smile," says Hind Ouali, deputy director of operations at the large Brussels facility.

And it is not just in the health sector that the masks are catching on. After weeks stuck at home, Brussels diners headed out for lunch on Monday and some were delighted to be greeted with a grin.

"I think that's great! It's much better, warmer, than the usual anonymous surgical mask," declares young customer Audrey, slipping her new mask on. "Only the mouth doesn't move, but you can at least see the whole face."