Belgian enclave in the Netherlands juggles tricky viral rules

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Baarle-Nassau (Netherlands) (AFP)

There is a small Belgian enclave in the south of the Netherlands where adhering to two sets of rules to fight the coronavirus has become a daily challenge, with international borders crossing streets and even crossing shops and homes.

The small town of Baarle-Hertog stands cheek by jowl with its Dutch neighbor Baarle-Nassau in the south of the Netherlands, but its 22 enclaves are in Belgian territory and are part of the municipality of Antwerp which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles).

Previously, no one worried too much that the Belgian Baarle-Hertog was completely surrounded by the Netherlands, with the border passing like a patchwork through the two cities and where the position of the front door determined in which country we were living.

But then the coronavirus pandemic arrived – Belgium following one set of guidelines and the Netherlands another – and confusion reigned.

– Mask or no mask? –

In Baarle-Hertog, as in Antwerp, wearing a mask in a public space is compulsory. This is not the case in Baarle-Nassau, as Dutch rules require masks only on public transport.

“People don’t understand whether or not they should wear a mask when they come to my shop,” said Sylvia Reijbroek, a local resident whose art gallery is divided by the border, marked with simple white crosses. On the ground.

The Dutchwoman was amused by the national border separating the site, but since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic “it’s not so beautiful anymore”.

Customers entering from the Belgian side of the gallery must put on a mask, before a few meters further inside the gallery, they are authorized to remove it because they have “crossed the border”.

Before the coronavirus, “there was no problem with the borders. Now we see that it is different, ”Reijbroek, who is an artist, told AFP.

– Tale of two cities –

Despite the obvious white crosses demarcating the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, the two villages worked well together, said Frans De Bont, mayor of Baarle-Hertog.

“With corona, everything has changed. Nobody knows what to do, ”he told AFP.

“Now it’s: ‘you are Dutch and you have your rules’ and we have Belgian rules which are stricter. And that’s strange, ”said De Bont, whose 7.5 square kilometer village has recorded 14 cases of the coronavirus so far.

During the recent lockdown, Reijbroek had to close its art gallery under Belgian law, while an adjoining boutique on the Dutch side could remain open.

Calling it a ‘smart lockdown’, the Netherlands was one of the few countries in Europe not to order a full quarantine at the height of the pandemic.

“We have two governments that have different ways of dealing with the coronavirus. It’s not very pleasant, ”said Reijbroek.

To help the two towns’ population of some 9,600 get through a difficult situation, some businesses are now displaying window signs that say, “No mask required here.”

To add to the absurdity of the situation, authorities in Antwerp recently tightened restrictions on COVID-19 with a nighttime curfew.

– Situation unique –

The history of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog dates back to the Middle Ages, and the geographic anomaly has attracted tourists from all over the world.

In 1198, the territory was divided when Henry I, Duke of Brabant, gave Godfried de Schoten, Lord of Breda, land.

In 1830, when Belgium became independent and separated from the Netherlands, the question of precise borders came to the fore.

The border was finally settled in 1995, some 165 years later.

This is a “unique” case in the world, said Willem van Gool, director of the Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog tourist office.

“You could say that we are the enclave capital of the world. We’re used to it, ”he said.

“But of course with the coronavirus we have new issues to solve,” Van Gool explained.

“It’s difficult for people here,” conceded Mayor De Bont.

But for De Bont, it’s not a competition to see which country has implemented the most effective measures against the coronavirus, so clearly seen in the way both cities are coping with the pandemic.

“We are working on something bigger. We are currently occupied with a war (against the coronavirus), ”he said.

Both countries are “doing their best”.

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