The games some people have been playing on social media — choosing who they’d want to be quarantined with — have become real life in Belgium.
Under strict lockdown since March 16, including home confinement except for essential journeys, Belgium’s controls have been some of the tightest in Europe. But it’s worked — after hitting one of the highest death rates in the world, the nation’s infection rate and death toll have dropped steadily since a peak in early April.
The decline led Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès to announce this past week that along with letting all stores reopen on May 11, certain social distancing guidelines will be relaxed.
Beginning on Sunday for Mother’s Day, Wilmès said, each household will be allowed to host up to four other people, preferably all within the same family, as long as social distancing is maintained. These groups cannot have contact with anyone else. Authorities describe it as kind of a “contract” between two households that will serve to limit any potential spread of COVID-19.
Of course, choosing can be a delicate process; no one wants to hurt the feelings of a friend or relative if they don’t make the cut.
Seventeen-year-old music student Carla Vandersteen says her friends started texting immediately about getting together. She’s made her “list,” consisting of the three friends who live closest to her, but still thinks it’s smartest not to go out.
“At least [to protect] your parents!” she urges. She says it would be so hard to see her best friends and not hug them. She fears many young people will now act like restrictions are completely lifted.
Many Belgians have expressed confusion about whether there’s any flexibility in the new rules.
As the parents of three young children, Daniel and Marie Bach joke that as a family of five, they’re mathematically ruled out of being any other household’s significant others.
“I think they mean ‘more or less four,'” Marie suggests with a laugh. “You can’t just abandon your last child — it can’t be so.”
While they are looking forward to some company, Daniel acknowledges “it’s a gamble” for authorities to allow social bubbles to expand. “A pretty big one, really.”
Then there’s the dilemma of Mother’s Day: visit with mom on Sunday and have her locked in as one of your “four,” or save that spot for someone else?
Veronique Petit says she and her husband will do some creative counting so that their two adult children can visit them and they can still visit their parents.
“It’s impossible” to follow these rules, Petit says in exasperation. “So we’re going to cheat a little. I think all Belgians are going to cheat.”
Police have admitted they won’t be able to verify whether visitations are being carried out correctly, but authorities say if infections spike, restrictions will have to be tightened again.