Dutch Cabinet loosens some lockdown restrictions amid record high Covid infections
NL Times also wrote a separate article detailing all coronavirus restrictions in effect in the Netherlands from January 15.
With coronavirus infections at record high levels, but Covid-19 hospitalizations approaching an 11-week low, the Dutch government decided to relax several coronavirus restrictions starting on Saturday. Lockdown restrictions affecting higher education, retail, fitness centers, organized sports, and close contact professionals were loosened, but hospitality and cultural sector businesses still have to stay closed. While some quarantine rules were also relaxed, stricter face mask recommendations were issued.
"The number of people entering the hospital is less, but it remains a concern. We looked at the intensity of social contacts. If you were to open everything up, the number of infections would increase too quickly. We first want to see how this develops," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
“Every choice leads to points of friction. The infection figures are rising sharply despite the lockdown, which will accelerate further. That is why you have to say 'no' at certain points, but let's keep looking at the developments,” said new Health Minister Ernst Kuipers.
The announcements were made during a press conference on Friday night, and the relaxed rules take effect on Saturday. The current set of restrictions will be reevaluated on January 25, with a press conference possible that night. At that time, other businesses and organizations may be allowed to open their doors again.
“We're going to look over the next ten days to see what we can learn further, from abroad, but also as a result of these decisions. If something can be done in ten days, the hospitality and cultural sector will have priority,” Rutte stated.
Many hospitality and cultural businesses plan to open on Saturday anyway in protest, with dozens of mayors saying they will not enforce the coronavirus restrictions affecting those organizations on that day only. Such a wide scale protest is a first for the Netherlands. When asked about it, Rutte said, “The mayors in the Netherlands are handling the situation wisely. Of course, the right to demonstrate also applies to the hospitality industry.” He added, “It cannot be the case that the catering industry will open completely again. Everyone is ready, but if we now go back to the situation before December 18 you run a great risk of putting too much pressure on healthcare.”
“If everyone who has not been given a vaccine booster becomes infected, it is almost certain that healthcare will become overloaded,” Kuipers added. He pointed to other regions of Europe where hospitalizations are surging again. Although the hospitalizations are at a lower rate per thousand infections, the magnitude of infections is far higher than before, he said.
Rutte has regularly answered questions from the media during a prime time event about the country’s coronavirus policy. It was the first such press conference for Kuipers, who replaced Hugo de Jonge this week. He used a different style to elaborate on his points during the event, using charts and visual aids during his opening statement to help explain the Cabinet’s reasoning scientifically. Kuipers previously served as the chair of the National Network for Acute Care, the office which coordinates placement of Covid-19 patients, and the head of the Erasmus Medical Center.
Secondary vocational education, applied sciences universities, and research universities will be allowed to open up classrooms to 75 students, with a recommendation that people self-test twice weekly. It will be the first time the students will enter a classroom, except for exams and practical instruction, since December 20.
Retailers may open their doors again, but must close every day by 5 p.m. Those inside a shop must wear a face mask. Capacity is limited based on store size, but appointments are not necessary to visit non-essential retailers.
Close-contact professions, including hairdressers, beauty salons, massage practitioners, and sex workers may open their businesses from Saturday. Face masks will be required. There remains a maximum number of customers per square meter. These businesses must close daily by 5 p.m.
Organized sports will be allowed to continue again, but still without spectators present. Sports may be played indoors or outdoors. Competitions may only take place within the same club for the time being.
Adults participating in indoor sports, including those visiting fitness centers, must present a valid coronavirus access pass to gain entry.
The maximum group size for people gathered outside was expanded to four people, a doubling of the current rule. That is relevant for everyone 13 years of age or older.
People may also receive up to four household guests 13 years of age and up. There is no limit to visitors under that age. People are recommended to visit no more than one home per day.
Looser quarantine rules
Quarantine rules were also relaxed for those who received a Covid-19 vaccine booster, or who tested positive for the coronavirus in the previous eight weeks. They no longer have to self-isolate if they do not have symptoms of Covid-19 after being in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
They will also need to take a PCR test to confirm they are negative for the coronavirus infection after five days. The same quarantine rules apply to people in certain crucial professions, though they will face stricter coronavirus testing requirements.
However, anyone who did not receive a booster shot, and did not test positive for coronavirus within the past year, will have to self isolate for ten days after contact with someone who tested positive. A negative PCR test on day five can release someone from a quarantine obligation.
Stricter face mask rules
The Cabinet also advised people to wear a disposable face mask when visiting busy public places, including office spaces, workplaces, and even outdoors areas , like shopping districts. Face masks remain the recommendation for everywhere that people cannot keep 1.5 meters away from each other.
The Cabinet said homemade face masks or fabric masks are no longer recommended.
Hospitality and Cultural businesses expected to open regardless on Saturday
Although the Cabinet announced the continuation of various lockdown policies, many municipalities were widely expected to allow hospitality businesses and cultural institutions to open their doors on Saturday. Cities across the country said they would allow the businesses to reopen in protest against lockdown measures, and would not punish entrepreneurs or customers for taking part in such a demonstration.
Valkenburg allowed as much on Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the city standing down and refusing to issue warnings or fines to entrepreneurs who defied the lockdown. Mayor Daan Prevoo noted that the city contended with disastrous flooding over the summer which kept businesses closed and tourists away. Before entrepreneurs had a chance to recover, coronavirus lockdown measures began to get stricter.
The mayors of dozens of cities wrote letters to the Cabinet expressing their concern, with many having planned to allow businesses to open on Saturday in protest if they follow other coronavirus restrictions related to face mask use, social distancing, and ventilation. Mayors in border cities, like Sittard-Geleen, are also upset that they’re business-owners are losing out on revenue, when people can simply cross the border into Belgium or Germany to shop and visit restaurants.
Aside from the protest, the 25 mayors representing all regions of the Netherlands on the Security Council agreed that upholding all coronavirus measures remained the best approach overall.