Belgium lets shops reopen, but keeps Christmas curbs to prevent third wave

A woman wearing a protective face mask stands outside a shop, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in central Brussels, Belgium, November 27, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium will let shops reopen from Tuesday, but keep other coronavirus curbs over the festive period, including limits on gatherings over Christmas and a ban on fireworks at New Year, the prime minister said.

Countries across Europe have been battling a second wave of infections, and wrestling with how to keep their citizens safe while allowing them a little relief over the holidays.

"If we loosen too soon, the numbers will shoot up and then it will be very difficult," Alexander De Croo told a news conference on Friday.

"If we have a third wave, it will be worse than the second and it will be harder to get out of it," he added.

While Britain will allow up to three households to meet at home over Christmas, Belgian households will only be able to be in close contact with one additional person. People living on their own will be able to meet two others.

Non-essential stores will be allowed to reopen, but Belgians will have to shop alone and only spend 30 minutes inside. The relaxation did not mean a return to "shopping for fun", De Croo said.

Museums and swimming pools can open, but fireworks, a staple of New Year celebrations, will be banned to limit gatherings and foreign travel strongly discouraged. Bars, restaurants, hairdressers, sports and cultural centres remain closed.

COVID-19 has claimed 16,219 lives in the country of 11 million people, Europe's highest rate per capita of confirmed fatalities.

About a third of the deaths have occurred in the second wave, though health authorities point to their more rigorous way of counting and figures showing excess mortality higher in France, Italy, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland.

New cases, hospital admissions and deaths are all declining.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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