European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, and European Council President Charles Michel participate in a media conference on the European Union response to the COVID-19 crisis at EU headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: AP)
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes announced the gradual de-confinement measures in three phases at the end of a National Security Council meeting on Friday.
An agreement was reached at a 7-hour meeting by the National Security Council (NSC), which decided on the lockdown measures to contain the new coronavirus as well as their extensions until May 3.
Based on the report and recommendations of the group of experts in charge of the "Exit Strategy" (GEES), the NSC adopted a strategy of gradual de-confinement with a balance between health, economy and education.
"The exit strategy will go into force from May 4, after which we have a long period of transition ahead of us, before we can regain our freedoms and go back to normal life," Wilmes said, quoted by the newspaper Brussels Times.
The first phase of de-confinement (Phase 1A) will begin on May 4. One of the first measures announced by Wilmes is the compulsory wearing of masks in public spaces and on public transport.
The Belgian government will provide at least one free mask for every citizen, she said.
During Phase 1A, there will be a gradual return to work. Companies that cannot guarantee social distancing have to take measures. Telework remains the norm, Brussels Times reported. Fabric stores are allowed to open, to provide fabric for masks.
Also, social distance has to be respected at all times. Gatherings and meeting friends at home remain prohibited. Public transport will resume its usual activities, but the use of face masks is mandatory, Brussels Times said.
During Phase 1B which begins on May 11, all stores are allowed to reopen, on very strict conditions, which will be defined next week, in agreement with the GEES, according to Brussels Times.
The second phase is scheduled to begin on May 18, with the gradual resumption of school.
For primary and secondary school, lessons will be restarted for a maximum of 3 grades, in smaller groups of 10 pupils per class, and a minimum of 4 square meters per pupil must be provided.
Schools will continue to be responsible for the care of children whose parents have to work. Fabric face masks will become mandatory for teachers and children older than 12. Regularly washing hands will be mandatory, and supervised, according to Brussels Times.
Phase 3 will start on June 8 at the earliest, with the progressive reopening of the restaurants.
The prime minister reiterated the importance of respecting the basic rules. "In order to succeed, we count on your sense of responsibility, on your sense of citizenship, on your common sense," she said.
"This is not definitive. We can never rule out the possibility that we will have to take a step back if the virus flares up again," Wilmes said.
Belgium recorded 1,496 new infection cases of COVID-19 over the past 24 hours, bringing the country's total number of infections since the beginning of the epidemic to 44,293, health authorities announced on Friday.
Within the 24-hour period, 190 new deaths from COVID-19 were confirmed. As of Friday, a total of 6,679 people had succumbed to the coronavirus-caused disease in Belgium.