Belgium again shutters bars and restaurants

Brussels (AFP) –


A partial return to lockdown in Brussels failed to stem a dramatic new wave of coronavirus infections, so on Monday bars and restaurants across Belgium were closed for a month.

From midnight, the shutdown will also be reinforced with an overnight curfew, to discourage defiant merry-makers from thronging the streets as the epidemic rages on.

But it is Belgium's second major lockdown, hospitalisations are up 100 percent week-on-week, and restaurant owners are close to breaking point as they face a grim winter.

"We don't feel like anyone cares. It breaks my heart," said Angelo Bussi as he put the key in the lock of his city centre Brussels eatery late Sunday and choked back sobs.

"Managers, chefs, dish-washers, everyone is suffering," he told AFP, before shrugging, waving and walking off into the night, declaring: "Ah, well there we are, see you in a month."

Some of the premises that can convert to offering take-away food, like the cafes and sandwich joints around the EU headquarters, were open and doing this trade Monday.

But anywhere one might have gathered to down a Belgian beer or meet friends around a steaming pan of mussels and a plate of chips was closed by order of the new federal government.

Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, facing his first emergency since he cobbled together a ruling coalition more than a year after elections, warned of an "exponential" virus surge.

In a country of only 11.5 million, Belgium already has one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the world.

"The situation is serious and much worse that it was on March 18 when we ordered almost complete confinement," he said Friday, referring to the number receiving intensive care in Belgian hospitals.

- Ministers infected -

He called on all Belgians to do the maximum to limit their social and professional contacts to a bare minimum, to keep down new infections and give health workers space to work.

"The health situation in (the French-speaking region of) Wallonia and Brussels is the worst and therefore the most dangerous in the whole of Europe," Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told RTL TV on Sunday.

By Monday, Belgium had registered 222,253 coronavirus cases -- a figure that has doubled in the past month, and 10,413 deaths.

Schools have reopened, but from Monday university campuses will be limited to a fifth of normal student numbers.

In the French-speaking part of the country, the All Saints' Day school holidays that start on Saturday, October 31 have been prolonged so that they run into the November 11 holiday weekend.

For adults, working from home is advised, and many major employers -- such as the EU and NATO headquarters in Brussels -- are running with limited numbers of staff in the offices.

The EU is debating whether to hold more summits and talks virtually, after two foreign ministers who met last week tested positive and several leaders abandoned a face-to-face summit to self-isolate.