By Marine Strauss
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - All Belgian bars and restaurants will be forced to close for four weeks, the federal government said on Friday, in order to tackle a surging second wave of the coronavirus, with hospitals close to running out of beds.
The Belgian government also decided to impose a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m for a month.
"This virus is affecting our country in a very hard way," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told a news conference, after a five-hour meeting. "The coming weeks will be very difficult but we must take those measures to avoid the worse."
The measures will last at least four weeks from Oct. 19, with a review of their impact after two weeks.
The measures also include reducing to just one the number of people Belgians can see at close proximity outside their homes and enforcing work from home for most employees. Selling alcohol will be forbidden after 8 p.m.
Belgium followed the Netherlands, which closed its bars and restaurants on Oct. 13, and France in imposing a nighttime curfew.
The country is now in the highest, fourth level of its emergency scale. De Croo said tonight's decisions were a step back towards more restrictions, but were necessary.
"I am fully aware that those measures are very, very severe," he said.
Five weeks after reopening, Belgian universities will have to switch mostly to online teaching from Monday, although schools will remain open for now.
The nation of 11 million people has Europe's second highest infection rate per capita after the Czech Republic. New infections are doubling every week, hitting a peak of 8,500 on Monday and probably more than 10,000 on Tuesday.
In Brussels, home to European Union institutions and the headquarters for Western military alliance NATO, 20% of tests turn out positive.
The number of patients in intensive care units (ICUs) has doubled over 11 days to 327 on Thursday.
Belgium's maximum capacity of 2,000 ICU beds might be fully exhausted by mid-November at the current rate of increasing infections, health authorities have said.
"It is clearly an exponential increase that we are seeing today," De Croo said.
All Belgian hospitals will have to reserve half of their beds for Covid-19 patients from Oct. 26, meaning non-urgent procedures and care will have to be delayed or cancelled.
COVID-19 has claimed 10,283 lives in Belgium, one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the world.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Tomasz Janowski)