BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium allowed most of its shops to reopen on Monday with strict hygiene rules for customers, following in the footsteps of Spain in an easing of its eight-week lockdown as the number of COVID-19 cases fall.
Belgians must now shop alone and should wear face masks and in some stores even gloves. But many still thronged shopping streets for the first time since mid-March, albeit with a cordon system in place to create one-way routes and avoid pedestrians from bumping into one another.
“At first, we weren’t following the indications, but now we get it, we see the markings on the ground,” said shopper Ambroisine Igouanga, who works in Brussels, wearing a brightly-coloured homemade cotton face mask.
The nation of 11.5 million people closed restaurants, cafes, gyms and schools from March 14 and then ordered that all non-food shops close from March 18.
The government has begun allowing a gradual easing of restrictions from May 4, with a series of phases of further re-opening during the course of the month.
However, beauty salons, hairdressers and tattoo parlours remained closed because physical distancing is not possible.
With almost 55,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and 8,707 deaths, Belgium has been among the most affected in Europe per capita, although it was also quick to report deaths in care homes and also counts deaths of those suspected to have the COVID-19 disease, based on symptoms.
In an encouraging sign, the number of hospital admissions in Belgium was 60 over the past 24 hours, compared to 10 times that level each day in late March.
Complete with mini-roundabouts on pedestrian streets to allow people to change direction, shoppers were greeted by “welcome back” signs in shop windows, hand sanitizers, gloves, police patrols, and also long queues.
“Unfortunately, I had to wait ages for some hearing aid batteries. It was urgent,” said Salvatore, a jobless man who works in the still-shuttered restaurant sector.
Others were just grateful to be able to go out, and some were expecting stores to be offering reductions.
“It’s great, I’m expecting sales, I think everyone is,” said Firene Azeri from Azerbaijan, who lives in Brussels with her husband and child.
Elisabeth, a saleswoman working at a clothes shop in central Brussels, said she had seen consumers squabbling over places in the queues outside shops.
“There’s a lot of stress: people argue over who is where in the line, but here everything is calm.”
Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Angus MacSwan