By Bart Biesemans
GHENT, Belgium (Reuters) - The Belgian city of Ghent has struggled to persuade its large student population to stick to social distancing rules during the pandemic, but the authorities hope they have found a solution at least to keep outside gatherings under control.
The city, home to some 80,000 students, has painted 100 large, white circles on the ground in St Peter's Square at the heart of the student district, and in nearby parks over the past month, an effort reinforced after partying there last week led to clashes with police.
Ghent mayor Mathias De Clercq said the students themselves had come up with the idea, but stressed that, while Belgian COVID rules limit groups meeting outdoors to four people, it was not mandatory for a group to sit in a circle.
"Everyone is free to use them or not," he told Reuters television. "It's a nice example of nudging, a gentle push towards good behaviour."
The circles are 6 metres (19 feet 8 inches) in diameter and 4 metres apart.
Students seemed reasonably content with the system as they sat out in the sunshine this week.
"In these harsh times, it's not very easy to meet people and to socialise with your friends. So I think it's a good solution. It looks a little bit weird, but it's effective," said 20-year-old engineering student Elian Colpaert.
Law student Kato Pion said some had complained the authorities were treating them like infants, but thought the circles were a good idea.
"But I think it is actually good that we are given the freedom to sit on the square, of course according to the rules," she said.
(Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)