Dutch finally don masks as second wave bites

The Hague (AFP) –

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A rare sight has begun to appear in Dutch cities: people wearing masks.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the famously liberal Netherlands has held out against the strict measures imposed by its European neighbours.

But with the country gripped by a second wave of infections, the Dutch government has made an abrupt U-turn, advising people to wear face coverings in all indoor spaces.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte this week "urgently recommended" that masks be worn in supermarkets, museums and railway stations.

"I find it uncomfortable, but I'm wearing one because I don't want to be quarantined," teacher Maria Houweling said in one of The Hague's main shopping streets.

Houweling, 48, said she thought mask-wearing should to be compulsory as it is in many countries including France, Spain and Italy.

That is a step the Dutch government has yet to take, except on public transport, fearing the economic consequences as well as a public backlash ahead of elections next March.

- Second wave -

The Dutch government has been widely accused of dragging its feet over the measures, long opting instead for what Rutte dubbed an "intelligent lockdown" and insisting there was no scientific basis for ordering people to wear masks.

But as new infections pass 3,000 a day, and with several European countries imposing travel restrictions on people coming from the Netherlands, the government was forced to act.

On Monday, Rutte announced that all bars and restaurants must close from 10 pm for three weeks, and said fans would be banned from sports matches.

He also advised people to wear masks in supermarkets in the country's three biggest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Then, in a shambolic turnaround under pressure from parliament just two days later, Rutte called on people to don masks "anywhere you can't see the sky".

Rutte however stopped short of ordering people to wear masks, leaving it to shops to bar entry to people without them -- which most supermarkets promptly said they would not do.

Experts say, however, that action was needed to curb the trend of rising infections.

"In the last month, we have seen a steep rise in the number of Covid-19 cases in The Netherlands," said Susan van den Hof, head of the centre for epidemiology and surveillance of infectious diseases at the RIVM, the Dutch public health authority.

"We're really at the start of the second wave now, especially since we do see an increase in hospitalisations and number of people admitted to the intensive care," she told AFP.

- 'It feels unfair' -

The Netherlands has recorded 117,551 cases since the pandemic began, with 6,393 deaths, according to official figures.

Van den Hof said the relaxation of rules over the summer across Europe had led to an earlier-than-expected new surge, and that they now expected a "busy period" in hospitals over the winter.

But she added that it was "never too late to curb the trend that we see".

"If people start taking measures seriously and more severe measures will be put in place for everyone... there is still time to change," she added.

The Dutch look like they are starting to comply with the new measures, but will they stick?

"The whole sector of restaurants and bars and clubs are having a difficult year. You don't know long how it is going to be," said Bas Swillens, manager of cafe-restaurant Leopold and cafe Berger in The Hague's popular Plein square.

He said that when he turns out the lights at 10 pm every night "of course it feels unfair".