Belgium to reopen businesses on June 8, borders on June 15

Slideshow ( 3 images )

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium will allow almost all businesses to reopen on June 8, including cafes and bars, after its lockdown to combat the coronavirus, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said on Wednesday, although social distancing measures will remain.

She said Belgium, among the European countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic but now seeing a significant drop-off in the infection rate, will also reopen its borders to all fellow European Union states on June 15.

“From June 8 everything will be allowed, with exceptions,” Wilmes told a news conference after a meeting of the country’s national security council.

“The virus is still among us, it is still taking victims and will probably take more, and certainly if we are not vigilant,” she added, saying large gatherings would remain banned until Aug. 31. Nightclubs also cannot open before the end of August.

Wilmes said cultural activities would continue without spectators until July 1, when cinemas and other cultural spaces can open with a maximum of 200 people. Gyms can reopen from Monday, but with no access to changing rooms.

Wilmes recommended not greeting friends with kisses or hugs. Gatherings should be no larger than 50 people.

Belgians should meet a maximum of 10 friends a week - a so-called personal bubble - although honouring that rule would depend on citizens showing responsibility, Wilmes said, rather than enforcement by authorities.

Belgium, where the European Union and NATO are headquartered, imposed a coronavirus lockdown on March 18. With 9,522 deaths from the outbreak, including in care homes, densely populated Belgium suffered one of the world’s highest per capital tolls from COVID-19.

But cases have dropped off dramatically in recent days, with just 70 new confirmed infections reported on Tuesday, down from around 700 hospitalisations a day in late March.

Additional reporting and writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Heinrich