Dutch PM unveils relaxed coronavirus measures through June 15

Bombarie, a cafe in Amsterdam Oost, announces their reopening on June 1. 17 May 2020
Bombarie, a cafe in Amsterdam Oost, announces their reopening on June 1. 17 May 2020NL TimesNL Times

With reporting by Byron Mühlberg.

In a press conference Tuesday evening, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reiterated the country's plans to gradually open up the Netherlands from its intelligent lockdown approach to the spread of coronavirus. As it leaked out earlier on Tuesday, Rutte confirmed that primary schools in the Netherlands will open up more widely from June 8, fitness centers will remain closed, and cafes may not open up their interiors before noon on June 1 as they had hoped. Covid-19 testing will still become more widely available to the public.

Despite the loosening of physical distancing restrictions, Rutte remained adamant that people continue to be mindful of their space, that they not leave the house if they have a cold or flu, and that they continue to work from home as much as possible. "Now it is crucial that everyone understands that easing the measures actually makes it more important for us to abide by the rules," he said. "If we go too fast, and a second lockdown is necessary, it is that much worse for our economy. Therefore caution and economic interest are in line with each other."

That is why Rutte maintained his and the Cabinet's stance that the "big picture" situation must be approached with caution, and stuck to a plan to ease restrictions in phases. "Every relaxation means more crowds. That is why not everything can open at the same time," he said. "Not everything is set in stone. We are open to consultation. Flexibility is and remains necessary."

At the same time, he seemed to shoot down the idea of different restrictions per region, defending a national plan instead. Earlier in the day Amsterdam's mayor, Femke Halsema, had said she may want to release restrictions more slowly than somewhere like Drenthe, as the city's dense population makes it likely for an uncontrolled second outbreak of the viral infection.

The Cabinet was not prepared to make any recommendations about the summer holiday period. As other European countries prepare to open up to tourism, the Netherlands is more cautious about allowing people across the borders in either direction. "We must estimate the contamination risks in those countries," Rutte said. "At the moment code orange applies: only strictly necessary trips."

Also as previously announced, mucus swab testing for active Covid-19 infections will become more widely available in June. Anyone with symptoms will be allowed to contact their branch of municipal health service GGD to get tested without first contacting their family physician. A positive test results in a quarantine, and an investigation of all those who came in contact with that patient.

"We want to be able to administer 30,000 tests per day," said Public Health Minister Hugo de Jonge, who joined Rutte. "The source and contact research must also be scaled up. It is a huge job, but the GGD can do this. They have already shown that." He said many people would need to be hired to carry out the task.

The upending of people's lives, particularly young lives, was not lost on Rutte, and he took a moment to make an appeal directly to the youth of the nation. "The vast majority of children and young people have adapted very well, and I would like to greatly commend you for that. Nobody knows what our country will look like in the near future. We want you to talk about it," he said. "Your ideas and creativity are urgently needed. Come up with ideas. Deliver constructive criticism. Talk about it. The safety rules are not up for discussion, but within this we have to find the best solution together. Children must be involved in the plans for the future."

June 1: Masks required on public transit; some groups allowed

Beginning on June 1, those on public transit without at least a non-medical mask may be fined 95 euros. This is as more crowding on public transportation is expected because groups of 30 people will also be allowed in publicly-accessible buildings, like cinemas, restaurants, and theaters, only if a distance of 1.5 meters can be kept between people.

Those groups exclude staff. Those who live in the same household do not have to adhere to the physical distance rules, Rutte said. The prime minister said restaurants would

Nightlife locations will remain closed, but groups will be allowed to meet each other outdoors. Visitors may be received at home, but still only when remaining 1.5 meters apart.

Restaurant and catering associations had lobbied heavily to reopen cafes and bars even on a limited scale later this week to take advantage of upcoming holidays. The Dutch association for the hospitality sector KHN said on Tuesday it was disappointed these locations would not likely be allowed to open up. The association wanted restaurants to be allowed to open over Pentecost weekend, just before June 1, and some beach locations were pushing to open this week because of Ascension.

"Every day longer the closure lasts, is one day too many," a KHN spokesperson said to Den Haag FM. The association is confident that restaurants, cafes and other catering establishments can open in a "responsible manner", the spokesperson said. "We indicated: let us open for Pentecost weekend. That is also a way to build up gradually. With all the measures there is no reason for this to be impossible."

The Security Council, made up of the mayors that head the 25 security regions in the Netherlands, asked the government to allow catering establishments to open at noon on June 1. In this way they want to prevent businesses opening immediately after midnight, as some hairdressers did when they were allowed to reopen on May 11. This is to prevent crowds at night and impromptu parties.

June 8: Primary schools open, Secondary school and higher education a week later

Starting June 8, primary schools will open up fully to all students, unless the Covid-19 situation begins to deteriorate again. With that, daycare and afterschool care will also be allowed to reopen. Older students, including university students, will be allowed to attend classes again from June 15, but classes will be scheduled so students do not require the use of public transit during rush hour.

The Cabinet is cautiously optimistic that more people may be allowed to visit care homes from May 25, and if that goes well, they may be able to allow a larger number of visitors by June 15.​

"We urge everyone to remain thoughtful. The peak in intensive care is just behind us," he said. Indeed, the number of patients in ICU with Covid-19 was 80 percent lower on Tuesday, compared to April 9 when there were 1,417 who required intensive care. "Protect yourself and the people around you."

The prevailing advice so far has been to work from home as much as possible, and remain there except to get fresh air. He also reminded people that they are to stay home if they have any cold or flu symptoms, and everyone in a household is to stay home if even one person has a fever of 38 degrees or more. The Cabinet has called this the "intelligent lockdown."

At the last scheduled press conference, Rutte unveiled a plan to bring the country out of its intelligent lockdown over a series of phases. From June 1, the plan was to open up cafe terraces, cinemas, and theaters with limited seating, museums and cultural institutions with limited admissions, and secondary schools with smaller class sizes.

With these likely to cause increased use of public transportation, everyone will be required to wear at least non-medical mouth masks when commuting.