Belgium to Gradually Ease Virus Lockdown in First Half of May

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(Bloomberg) -- Belgium will start relaxing the lockdown measures on its citizens and companies, now in their sixth week, with a plan to progressively reopen businesses in the first half of May as Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes warned the timing will be fully dependent on the strength of the epidemic.

“We have never before tried out an exit strategy like this,” Wilmes said at a briefing in Brussels late on Friday night. “Nothing will be carved in marble, especially not the target dates.”

Companies with business-to-business operations and industrial activities reopen May 4, to be followed a week later by retailers and all companies with a business-to-consumer focus, except those that can’t possibly avoid physical contact such as hairdressers. Schools will progressively open for students aged 6 to 18 from May 18, split by age groups, and masks will be mandatory age 12 and up, as well as in public transportation starting May 4. Bars and restaurants will have to remain closed until at least June 8, and leisurely cross-border travel will stay banned before that date.

Belgium’s partial lockdown has saved the health system from getting overwhelmed as more than 4 out of 10 available beds in intensive care units remained vacant at the peak of the outbreak more than two weeks ago. The death toll in the country of 11.4 million currently stands at 6,679, with more than half of those fatalities occurring in senior care homes. But the restrictions on social contacts have a crippling effect on its economy and public finances.

Weekly surveys by employer federations have shown that exactly a third of the Belgian economy is currently at a standstill, as measured by lost revenue in all industries combined, and about 1.3 million workers in for-profit businesses, almost 40% of domestic employment outside the public sector, are now on temporary benefits paid by the state.

The economic contraction, and the government’s fiscal response to fight the fallout of the recession, will cause Belgium’s public debt to balloon to a two-decade high of about 115% of gross domestic product by year-end, according to National Bank projections in early April, assuming the restrictions wouldn’t last longer than seven weeks.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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