By Marine Strauss
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium will allow bars and restaurants to reopen for the first time in six months on May 8, although only for outdoor consumption, after a four-week lockdown that has cut coronavirus infections but barely reduced pressure in hospitals.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the government was adopting a "prudent" approach. "The face of the pandemic has changed. We are not fighting the same virus than a year ago. The virus and its variant are more virulent, contagious and aggressive now," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Pressure has been mounting for a relaxation of the rules imposed on hospitality. Before an increase of the more infectious variant of the virus first detected in Britain, cafes and restaurants had been set to open fully on May 1.
"Right now, the world is still turning, people are at work, and we are at a standstill. We are punished," Pascal Devalkeneer, chef of the Chalet de la Foret restaurant in Brussels, told Reuters ahead of the government announcement.
Schools will reopen across the country from Monday, when a ban on non-essential foreign travel will also expire, although De Croo urged people to travel as little as possible.
Belgians will also be allowed to go back to the hairdressers from April 26, when non-essential stores can also reopen. Flea markets and theme parks will be able to operate from May 8, along with gyms catering for up to 25 people.
The government put off until later allowing spectators or audiences at sports, shows and cultural events.
More than 22,000 people have died from coronavirus in Belgium, among the world's highest per capita fatality rate. Infections, which have decreased, remain above 3,000 per day and the reproduction rate of 1 indicates Belgium's battle against the virus is finely balanced.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Mike Harrison)