THE HAGUE – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Tuesday extended the Netherlands' coronavirus curfew until March 15 while also relaxing some lockdown measures in what he called a calculated risk to make the year-long crisis “bearable.”
“We are on our way to better times,” Rutte told the nation of 17 million in a nationally televised press conference.
Rutte said high school students can return to their classrooms for at least one day a week starting March 1. Vocational education also will be allowed to partially reopen, although universities will remain closed.
Rutte is seeking to strike a balance between keeping a lid on infections while also easing restrictions in his lockdown-weary nation, which is heading toward a general election on March 17.
“We are at a time when we have to be prepared to take a little bit more risk,” he said.
Along with high schools and vocational colleges starting to reopen next week, hairdressers, masseurs and people in other “contact professions” will be allowed to go back to work. Everybody under age 27 will be allowed to participate in outdoor team sports from March 3.
Very limited numbers of people will be allowed to visit non-essential shops if they make appointments at least four hours in advance.
The government’s easing still left many businesses such as bars and restaurants shuttered until at least March 8.
An umbrella organization for the catering industry has said it plans to file legal action against the government to force the reopening of bars and restaurants and to seek compensation for lost revenue on top of the state aid they already are receiving.
The Netherlands is among the European countries trying to chart a way out of virus lockdowns while forging ahead with vaccination campaigns and trying to prevent new, more contagious variants from picking up pace.
In neighboring Belgium, the government presented projections Monday indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen its current restrictions over the coming weeks. Belgian authorities are set to decide Friday on extending the country's lockdown.
The 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew the Dutch government imposed sparked rioting when it was introduced. It was the subject of legal wrangling last week, when a judge ruled the curfew was improperly ordered and the government appealed. The government government subsequently rushed new legislation through parliament to give the stay-home order a new legal underpinning.
Rutte announced the changes to the lockdown after the country’s public health institute announced that confirmed coronavirus infections rose by nearly 19% over the past week as more people got tested following a week of icy conditions.
The percentage of positive tests in what the institute called a “third wave” of infections declined slightly from 11.5% to 9.8%.
The public health institute credited the tough lockdown and curfew with reducing infections by an estimated 10% since Jan. 23.
“Because the majority of the population has not yet been vaccinated, it is very important to prevent infections as much as possible and to keep this third wave as low as possible,” the institute said. “This is only possible if a relaxation (of the lockdown) is done with great caution and step-by-step.”
More than 15,300 people are confirmed to have died of COVID-19 in the Netherlands.
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