Belgians brave rain to return to outdoor tables after Covid-19 lockdown lifted

BRUSSELS (AFP) – After almost seven months of a second national lockdown, a thirsty Belgium, heartland of European beer, returned gingerly to outside tables on Saturday (May 8).

The wet weather was not promising as the first hardy souls began to gather at café terraces in Brussels, hoping to take a step towards a return to normal life.

In Chatelain, a popular bar and restaurant district of the capital, early arrivals huddled in winter coats under awnings, but were delighted to support their local businesses.

“Typical Brussels weather,” grinned 42-year-old American expat Amy Marshall, returning to a favourite brunch spot – the Poz Café – near her home.

Belgium was one of the hardest hit countries in the first wave of the epidemic last year, and locked down harder than some when the later surges hit.

Now a national vaccination campaign has begun to make progress, infection numbers are down and the government has begun a phased return to business as usual.

For long-standing bar owners and restauranteurs it’s a relief, for new entrants in the market it’s a moment of hope – and of some tension.

“I picked my moment, it’s ideal!” joked 31-year-old Thomas Mamakis as he opened up L’Altitude, which he hopes will become the bar of the moment in Forest, a southern Brussels district.

The welded joints on the steel cladding in the kitchen are still warm from the heat of their installation, but the chef was in the kitchen knocking together dough for tacos and the tables are out.

While the 50 square metre terrace is in use, with the tables spaced one and a half metres apart under the drizzling rain, the larger interior area was closed to customers.

Mamakis’ frustration at the slow opening reflects that of veteran rivals, who insist that the industry has enough experience of distancing to protect its clientele.

“Putting 15 people in an office or an Ikea is possible, but for small businesses it’s not?” he asks, ironically.

“We have 100 square metres here, they could let us have ten people.”

Just a tea?

At the Supra Bailly, a pub-style café popular with beer drinkers that while empty had been festooned with flyers protesting the lockdown, 35-year-old Jean-Claude Heraals was having to restrain his enthusiasm.

“Just a tea for me. I’d have got a beer, but I have to work this afternoon,” he said. Had he planned this outing? “For two months!” Heraals would love to come back to his regular spot later with friends, but for the moment parties are limited to four to a table.

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Prime Minister Alexander de Croo’s government has made the lockdown a key part of its anti-pandemic strategy, opening the terraces weeks later than neighbouring Luxembourg.

The policy seems to be working but it hasn’t always been popular. Many bar owners believe that they had proved last year that they could responsibly re-open under proper distancing restrictions.

The government has provided some support, and has slashed value added tax on alcohol to support the sector, but some merry-makers took matters into their own hands.

On April 1 and again one month later hundreds of mainly-young party-goers organised by internet activists descended on a Brussels park and had to be dislodged by police with water cannon and horses.

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Belgium, a country of only 11.4 million people, has had more than a million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 24,483 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Cases are down, but daily deaths have been averaging at around 39 per day for several weeks.

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