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Hard-hit Belgium relaxes coronavirus rules as deaths remain flat for 3 months

Country will determine outbreak severity mostly by hospitalization levels.

Updated: September 23, 2020 - 4:40pm

Belgium, which remains among the top three hardest-hit countries in the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic, will relax numerous coronavirus restrictions there and adjust the metrics by which the country determines the virus's severity on the local and national levels, the country's prime minister announced on Wednesday. 

P.M. Sophie Wilmes said at a Wednesday press conference that the country is developing an "epidemic barometer" to assess COVID-19's prevalence in the country, one that will focus mostly on hospitalizations rather than confirmed cases or other pandemic markers. 

Starting next month, citizens will no longer be required to wear face masks every time they head outdoors. Facial coverings will only be mandated in crowded public places and in venues such as movie theaters. "It is useless to make masks compulsory anytime, anywhere," Wilmes said on Wednesday.

The country is also dialing back its mandatory quarantine period from two weeks to one depending on a patient's test results. Some travel-related quarantine rules have also been dialed back. 

Belgium's relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions would seem to defy what is currenttly conventional epidemiological wisdom. Daily new cases have been elevated there since late July and have spiked in the last two weeks. 

Yet though average daily cases have been up since the summer, COVID-19 deaths have remained flat. Since mid-June daily deaths have rarely risen above single digits. The country has the third-highest adjusted death rate in the world, behind Peru and the microstate San Marino. 

Wilmes said the country is "trying to return to a situation that is as normal as possible, in the long term."

At the same time that she announced the relaxed rules, the prime minister warned citizens to "not fall into the trap of nonchalance."

"Tackling the epidemic also depends on our behaviour. We are all part of the solution," she said.