SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – Reopening shops, higher education institutes and fitness centres will lead to a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, possibly up to 80,000 a day, prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters on Friday evening.
Nevertheless, taking such a step is responsible, Rutte said, because of the impact of the current measures on society. ‘We are taking a risk because we have to do sport to stay healthy, because two in three youngsters are feeling lonely, and the lockdown is damaging our health as well,’ he said.
The prime minister said he understood that the decision not to reopen cafes, restaurants and the cultural sector feels ‘extremely unfair’. However, the risks of spreading the virus during the longer and more intensive contact between people in cafes, for example, are so high that ‘we cannot do everything at the same time.’
As expected, colleges and universities can reopen, with a 75-student limit in lecture theatres. Students should also wear masks all the time while at university. The options for taking part in indoor and outdoor sports and fitness are being expanded.
Gyms can reopen and indoor sports can again take place. However, spectators are still banned, and a coronavirus pass will be required for indoor sports for the over-17s. People are asked to wear a mask, when not actually exercising.
Non-essential shops can reopen but must close at 5pm, but the cabinet has decided not to introduce an appointment system, which had been recommended by the Outbreak Management Team.
Masks are compulsory in shops and there are limits on numbers. Hairdressers, nail stylists and other contact professions can also start working again, as long as they shut up shop at 5pm.
The maximum recommended size for groups outdoors is going up from two to four. At home, the advice is for people to have up to four adult guests per 24 hours.
The quarantine rules are also being relaxed and people who have had a booster shot more than a week before or have recently recovered from coronavirus will not have to go into quarantine if they come into close contact with someone who tests positive for the disease.
People are encouraged to wear a medical face mask if possible, and avoid cloth masks – a marked contrast with government scepticism a year ago about the value of mask wearing.
Live with the virus
New health minister Ernst Kuipers said that we will have to learn to live with coronavirus in the long term. ‘It is not just up to the care sector, education, politicians to come up with solutions,’ he said.
‘We will all together have to find the best way of coming to terms with it,’ he said. In the Netherlands, where there are some 200,000 infections a week, youngsters account for the bulk of cases, he said.
The measures which are now being taken mean the number of infections will go up sharply and this in turn will disrupt society. ‘Cafes won’t be able to open because they won’t have the personnel because they will be sick,’ he said.
Asked what he thought about the way some local officials are ignoring cafes which are opening in protest, Rutte said it is up to local officials. ‘There is no policy of turning a blind eye,’ he said.
‘It is up to the mayors to decide if they open for a couple of hours, if this can be seen as a demonstration.’ He claimed that local mayors agree that there can be no systematic reopening, or policy of ‘tolerance’ for bars and restaurants breaking the rules long term.
The cabinet will reassess the situation on January 27, in the hope that cafes, events and the cultural sector will be able to reopen, Rutte said.