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Belgian government pledges free masks for everyone as part of its COVID-19 lockdown exit strategy

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Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020   -   Copyright  Ludovic Marin, Pool Photo via AP
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Every Belgian citizen will receive a free fabric face mask as part of the exit strategy from the country's coronavirus lockdown, Belgian prime minister Sophie Wilmès announced on Friday.

Haberdasheries and fabric stores will be the first businesses to reopen on May 4, while other businesses will have to wait until May 11.

Also from May 4, the use of protective masks will become mandatory on public transport for everybody above the age of 12.

"Wearing a comfortable fabric mask will play a key role in the deconfinement strategy", assured Wilmès during her press conference in Brussels, also recalling the importance of hand hygiene.

Internal travel to the coast and Ardennes forests is set to restart on May 18.

On the same day, school classes will resume, starting from primary and secondary schools' final years.

There will be a maximum of 10 students per class, while kindergartens may not reopen this academic year.

Restaurants will start reopening from June 8.

However, mass events such as music festivals will not be allowed to take place until September.

Wilmès said any of the restrictions could immediately be reimposed if the health situation worsens.

"The balance is fragile, the equation is complicated, and that is why we have to keep in mind that nothing, nothing is set in stone," she insisted.

The number of people in intensive care units is decreasing in Belgium but the health system remains strained.

In this country of 11.5 million inhabitants, which counted more than 54,000 confirmed cases and nearly 7,000 deaths as of Saturday, "the spread of Covid-19 has been slowed down, but the virus has not disappeared," Wilmès said.