VALKENBURG, Netherlands — The Dutch government eased its coronavirus lockdown Friday, allowing non-essential stores, universities, sports clubs and "contact businesses" like hairdressers to reopen for the first time in nearly a month.
But while many businesses can open Saturday until 5 p.m., bars, restaurants, museums and theaters will remain shut as COVID-19 cases rise steeply.
"I understand very well that it feels completely unfair after all those long months of closure and after all that effort to open safely," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said about anger in the hospitality industry.
The discontent led shops, bars and restaurants in a southern Dutch town to open earlier Friday in a protest action that underscored growing anger at weeks of coronavirus lockdown measures.
Locals flocked to eat and drink at outdoor tables of restaurants in the main street of Valkenburg in open defiance of a lockdown in the Netherlands. Authorities in the tourist town, which was devastated by flooding last year, didn't take action to enforce coronavirus restrictions.
"It's very difficult, it doesn't feel fair at the moment. The first few lockdowns were logical, I agreed with them, but it doesn't feel fair any more," said Didi Corten, who opened the outdoor terrace of Brasserie America for the day.
"After the flooding, we want to open again very soon because otherwise I'm afraid a lot of businesses will not survive," she added. "It can't go on like this."
More towns in the region were planning similar protest openings on Saturday.
The country has been in a tough lockdown since Dec. 18 in a move the government says is aimed at "buying time" to ease pressure on overburdened hospitals and ramp up the vaccine booster program.
While infections have shot to record numbers recently as the omicron variant became dominant, hospital and intensive care unit admissions have been falling for weeks. The country's public health institute recorded an average of more than 31,000 new cases a day over the last week.
New Health Minister Ernst Kuipers warned that the number could rise to 80,000 per day. He advised people to wear medical face masks in busy public places and elsewhere, including at work, where it is not possible to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Dirk Beljaarts, general director of the national hospitality industry group, said he met with new Economic Affairs Minister Micky Adriaansens to press for bars and restaurants to be allowed to reopen.
"The Cabinet can't leave hospitality (& culture) as the only sectors out in the cold," Beljaarts tweeted earlier Friday ahead of the announcement that those sectors would not be allowed to reopen.
The lockdown has led to frustration particularly in towns like Valkenburg that are close to the Dutch borders with Germany and Belgium that are seeing people visiting those neighboring nations to shop or dine out because they have fewer restrictions.
The booster drive was slow to get started in the Netherlands, but has gathered pace in recent weeks. Just over 86% of adults are fully vaccinated and 45% have had a booster shot.
Corder reported from The Hague.
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