The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We let our guard down’: Frustrated Europe heads into second pandemic winter

The town of Knokke-Heist restarted restrictions after a coronavirus surge. (Perry Stein/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

KNOKKE-HEIST, Belgium — Life was finally starting to feel normal. An online flier for an October party in this Belgian beach town cursed the coronavirus and invited people to dance and drink again, to “get your clacker back from the attic” and kick off Carnival season.

Hundreds attended that event and another Carnival party the next night. Most of the town is vaccinated, and people were required to show proof, or a recent negative test, to enter. But it wasn’t enough. Coronavirus cases spiked the week after. Officials worried about pressure on the local hospital. And soon the town found itself under semi-lockdown once more.

As Americans caught up with family and friends this holiday week, with some trepidation about enduring virus risk, ­Europe faced another wave of the virus — and a gloomy and frustrating second pandemic winter.

Specter of new restrictions in Europe with cases spiking again

Despite vaccine supplies that are envied by much of the world, Europe is the only region where covid deaths are on the rise, according to the World Health Organization.

Reported deaths reached nearly 4,200 a day last week, doubling since the end of September, for the 53 countries the WHO counts as part of the European region. The organization predicts “high or extreme stress” on intensive care units in 49 of those countries between now and March.

What’s driving the surge in infections? The WHO cites the prevalence of the highly contagious delta variant, people gathering in indoors without the precautions they took when the virus was considered an emergency, pockets of people who remain unvaccinated, and declining protection among those who were vaccinated last winter or spring.

Europe has been behind the United States in its booster rollout. But otherwise, the same factors could shape the U.S. situation in the weeks ahead. And there’s concern on both sides of the Atlantic about the potential impact of the new omicron variant — first detected in Botswana and spreading in South Africa — that exhibits an unusually high number of mutations.

The new wave in Europe has led towns, cities and countries to bring back the sorts of restrictions that people hoped they were done with.

Slovakia, which has more new infections per capita than any other European Union country, declared a two-week lockdown on Wednesday. People are allowed to leave home for a limited number of reasons, including buying groceries, going to work and to school, and getting vaccinated. And starting next week, all workers will have to show they’ve been vaccinated, recovered from the coronavirus or had a recent negative test.

Austria, too, has imposed a lockdown that will last at least 10 days but more likely 20. The Netherlands, known for its nightlife, on Friday ordered nonessential stores to close from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Sunday. Belgium has mandated that all but essential employees work from home four days a week.

“I look for it every day, but I don’t see any sign of slowing down yet,” Steven Van Gucht, head of viral diseases at Belgium’s national public health institute, said in a local news interview this past week. “The number of infections has even accelerated somewhat.”

Many of the restrictions across the continent are expected to be lifted before Christmas. Still, people are growing more fatigued, impatient and angry with repeated disruptions that, even after 21 months, have yet to rid their communities of the virus. Protests erupted across Europe this month, with people decrying new measures in Rotterdam, Brussels, Vienna and elsewhere.

Protests swell across Europe against pandemic restrictions

“I don’t want to get into politics, I just want to run a bloody restaurant and see some tourists and pay my bills,” said Hans Blanckaert, who owns a restaurant and nightclub in the Belgian city of Bruges and helped organize a protest in Brussels last weekend.

Under Belgian law, Blanckaert must check that customers are vaccinated, recently tested negative or have recovered from the virus before they can enter his establishment. Belgium also reinstituted an indoor mask mandate this month, which means partygoers must be masked on the dance floor.

“They shut us down, and then shut us down again,” said Blanckaert, who predicts his restaurant wouldn’t survive another lockdown. “It’s just one big massive lie. It’s not working.”

Blanckaert is unvaccinated, as are many of the protesters across Europe. They argue that new measures to control the virus, on top of what in effect amount to vaccine mandates, are infringing on their freedoms.

Most people in the European Union, though, have now received two — and in some cases three — doses of coronavirus vaccines. They had expected the shots to bring back their pre-pandemic lives.

“I have the third vaccination, so okay, we must be a bit more careful, but the problem is that not everyone’s vaccinated,” said Luc Daems, an Antwerp resident who has a home in Knokke-Heist.

Frustration is to be expected, said Jeffrey V. Lazarus, a health systems and policy professor at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health. He said government messaging has been poor and inconsistent throughout the pandemic. For example, he said, it was never realistic to tell people life would return to normal if they got vaccinated. And he said it’s hard to convince people that stricter policies are necessary when different European countries are taking drastically different approaches.

“Europe needs to come together and come to an agreement on what it means to end this pandemic in broad strokes,” Lazarus said. “Every time we get good news in Europe, we let our guard down.”

That’s basically what happened with the Carnival parties in Knokke-Heist. Afterward, officials feared infection numbers would continue to rise, as more vacationers and second homeowners arrived, further straining the hospital in a town that has a large elderly population. Already, the nine ICU beds were filled, two of them by covid patients.

So they made a decision that shops and restaurants could remain open, but all indoor events on city property — including youth sports, theater productions and regular gatherings of elderly people in recreation centers — would be banned.

Austria is first country in Europe to impose vaccine mandate

Anthony Wittesaele, Knokke-Heist’s alderman for tourism and European affairs, said town officials got plenty of feedback, both positive and negative. “You have people sending messages saying you have the balls to do what’s necessary,” he said. “And then you have people saying dirt on Facebook. It’s dividing deeper and deeper, with all the measures taken.”

Stefan Dossche, owner of Marie Siska, a Knokke-Heist restaurant and hotel that has been in his family since 1882, said he’d rather the Belgian government enact stricter policies now to avoid a lockdown, which would force him to take another financial hit.

Business has been back to what it was like during the slow winter seasons before the pandemic, he said. Local residents, along with Dutch and Belgian vacationers, have been coming to Marie Siska’s for the specialty waffles and rounds of minigolf.

Dossche, whose vaccinated mother-in-law was hospitalized with covid this month, has two employees checking the vaccination status of customers as they enter. He keeps masks at the door for those who forget they now have to wear them while they walk to their table or the bathroom. He said customers are often confused about the latest rules, particularly since policies are different in the Netherlands, just a few miles away.

“It seems the government is always running behind the facts,” Dossche said. “They shouldn’t be changing the rules every two weeks.”

Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.