The Telegraph . Fri, October 9, 2020, 10:40 AM GMT+2
The Netherlands has overtaken Spain to become one of Europe’s Covid capitals, and Amsterdam is a major hotspot. What is going on?
On October 7, just short of 5,000 new cases were reported for the previous 24 hours in the Netherlands – an exceptionally high figure for such a small country. With a current infection rate of 243 per million inhabitants, the Netherlands surpasses not only Spain, but also the UK (192 per million), USA (137 per million) and Brazil (128 per million). The figure by far exceeds the highest number of daily infections reported during the spring lockdown – 1,316 on April 12 – although, of course, far fewer tests were being done back then. Neighbouring Germany now requires anyone entering the country from all but one Dutch province to first test negative; Belgium is strongly discouraging Dutch visitors (but as yet has no concrete restrictions).
Weekly hospitalisation and mortality rates remain relatively low – with just over 800 new admissions and 89 deaths reported last week – but have risen steeply from the single figures of early summer. More than half of the new infections occurred in the home or within families, and around a third were in the 15–29 age bracket. As is the case in the UK, relatively few people reported that they had picked up their infection in the workplace (12.7 per cent), at school (4.9 per cent) or in hotels, restaurants or cafés (2.9 per cent).
Back in March, the Dutch prime minister spoke of an ‘intelligent lockdown’. In the weeks that followed, although most people worked from home and went out only when necessary, shops remained open, and masks were obligatory only on public transport. People generally kept to social-distancing advice. But that ‘intelligent’ restraint seems to have disappeared. The summer saw widespread flaunting of guidelines. An attempt by Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema to make mask-wearing compulsory in more crowded parts of Amsterdam had to be abandoned at the end of August due to non-compliance.
The famed Dutch ‘polder model’ (round-table, ‘everyone-has-their-say’ discussions) that for decades has been so good for business and for healthy management-worker relations, has appeared less effective in a time of crisis. For weeks, once infection rates started rising again, the authorities seemed incapable of decisive action, circling about in discussions of the fairness, privacy and legality of stricter preventative measures. But at the beginning of October, after weeks of prevarication, the Dutch government did introduce firmer regulations – and the measures are likely to be tightened when they come up for review on October 20.
A masked visitor to the Rijksmuseum – getty
Under the new measures, cafés and restaurants must close at 10pm. All customers must have reservations and be seated at a table, and reservations can be for no more than four people (unless from the same household). All guests are asked to register their name and address, so that they can be contacted by health authorities, but registration is not compulsory. Clubs and nightclubs have been closed for some time, and must remain so.
People are advised to work from home, unless it is really impossible to do so, and to have no more than three visitors at home at any one time – although for the time being that remains advice, rather than a regulation. Schools and universities remain open, but cinemas and theatres are restricted to audiences of 30. Mayor Halsema has secured dispensation for Amsterdam venues that are considered of particular cultural importance – such as the national opera building and the Concertgebouw – to be allowed audiences of 250. The Rijksmuseum and other major Amsterdam museums have visitor numbers restricted in relation to their size.
The city’s tourism industry faces a long and hard winter – getty
Although the wearing of masks is still not compulsory, except on public transport, the government now ‘urgently recommends’ wearing masks in covered public spaces such as shops and museums. This also applies to theatres and restaurants, but here people may remove masks once seated.
Tourism in Amsterdam, which saw something of a resurgence in the summer, has been hard hit. Even during the upturn in June, hotel occupancy numbers were down some 50 per cent; predictions for the rest of the year put that at anything up to 80 or 90 per cent. Country areas benefit from internal tourism, but the Netherlands is small enough for most local visits to Amsterdam to be done as a day-trip. The city’s highly lucrative autumn conference trade has been reduced pretty much to zero.
Hotels’ ingenious ploys to generate custom seen in the summer are beginning to look more desperate – such as discounts of 50 per cent or more, or rooms let out as private workspaces. Smaller establishments feel the squeeze even more. “I have no bookings. Nothing. The few I had have all cancelled,” one B&B owner told me. Another has simply sold up, retired early, and gone to live in the country. Restaurants and cafés have been faring a little better, many taking advantage of a temporary relaxation in planning permissions to improvise outdoor seating areas – but terraces become less attractive as the weather gets colder. Despite the fact that reported transmissions in cafés and restaurants are low, many customers are reluctant to drink and dine indoors.
Like people the world over, Amsterdammers are tired of the restrictions, and wish the virus would go away. Autumn is a season many Amsterdammers relish – after the party of summer, life slows down a little. As the weather gets chillier, people look forward to meeting friends in the welcoming warmth of a café, infused with gezelligheid – that much-prized quality of cosy conviviality. Now it seems as if the privations of winter loom, magnified, and with few of its attractions: no skating behind the Rijksmuseum, no fireside chats in a time-worn ‘brown café’. Even the autumn’s main festivity – the procession of Sinterklaas (St Nicholas/Santa Claus) and his assistant through the streets on horseback, giving sweets to children – will no longer take place. Instead, Sinterklaas will arrive by steamship on a dockland island – with no live audience.
Meanwhile, Amsterdammers remain caught between the desire for everything to be normal again, and a reluctance to accept that it isn’t.