Over the past few weeks, life in Luxembourg has been slowly returning to “normal”. After over two months of restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, the government’s confinement measures paired with discipline among the public appear to have paid off: the number of new daily infections remain very low and there has not been a single coronavirus-related death reported in over two weeks (110 total reported deaths to date).
For context, Luxembourg declared a state of emergency back in mid-March, thus allowing the government to quickly take new measures aimed at stemming the coronavirus spread at the national level. Restrictions included the limitation of professional activities, for instance commercial and craft activities other than pharmacies or shops selling food products were closed to the public. Companies were encouraged to opt for teleworking where possible, hospital and care home visits were suspended and schools and construction sites were closed. For many, it seemed like the world had been turned on its head. For those of us already accustomed to teleworking, the change may have been less dramatic, although not being able to see friends (and family) was not any easier.
And yet, I feel like several weeks of staying at home as much as possible had become a routine for many of us, perhaps even a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of pre-COVID-19 life. Of course, times have been particularly tough for small businesses, artists and the travel and tourism industry, among others, and many people’s livelihoods have been threatened due to the economic consequences of the current crisis – despite the various financial support measures introduced by the government in recent weeks.
Taking into account the favourable evolution of national coronavirus figures, the Luxembourg government announced a three-phase lockdown exit strategy in mid-April. Phase one saw the reopening of construction sites, gardening services and DIY and recycling centres from 20 April and the return of final year students to secondary schools from 4 May 2020. As the rate of new infections continued to decline, Luxembourg proceeded to phase two of “deconfinement” with the reopening of secondary schools from 11 May, followed by the reopening of primary schools and childcare facilities from 25 May as part of phase three. Phase two also saw the reopening of businesses such as hairdressers and beauty salons as well as cultural institutions such as libraries and museums. In addition, visits to family and friends (limited to six people in addition to the visited household), outdoor gatherings of up to 20 people and non-contact outdoors sports were permitted.
Nevertheless, safety measures such as wearing masks and social distancing remained in place and large public gatherings are prohibited until the end of July (with the exception of funerals and civil marriage ceremonies). Prime Minister Xavier Bettel also confirmed mid-April that residents and cross-border workers (on whom the Luxembourg economy, particularly the health sector, heavily relies) would each receive five free masks in the post. More recently, the authorities provided all residents and cross-border workers over the age of 16 with an additional 50 masks. Indeed, as the lockdown exit strategy got underway and daily life began to resume (almost) as normal, wearing masks or another face covering on public transport became compulsory – although as someone who regularly takes the bus, I am constantly frustrated at other commuters (and even one or two bus drivers) wearing their masks either incorrectly or not at all…
In any case, as pressure mounted for the hospitality sector to reopen, the government announced last Wednesday that restaurants, bars and cafes, as well as swimming pools, churches and fitness centres, would finally be able to welcome the public again from 29 May, ie last Friday, as part of the third phase of the national deconfinement strategy. Meanwhile, cinemas are set to reopen on 17 June under strict health guidelines.
In parallel, the government launched a large-scale testing strategy aimed at testing the entire population (albeit on a voluntary basis). Whilst the idea hasn’t proven popular with everyone (concerns over the efficiency of testing everyone once), it seems like a step in the right direction – plus, Luxembourg’s extensive testing strategy has already proven pretty successful to date (over 82,000 tests carried out in total)!
Business as Usual?
With children back to school and shops, restaurants and museums reopened, one could be forgiven for thinking (or hoping) things have returned to “normal”. And in a way, it seems like they have. Without planning to, I ended up meeting a friend for the first time in over two months for a drink on a café terrace in Luxembourg City last Friday. The sun was shining and the capital was full of people chatting, eating and drinking together. Only the sight of masks on waiting staff and passers-by (and having to wear a mask myself on the bus there and back) and tables slightly further spaced apart than normal reminded me that things are not what they were before. The whole situation was familiar and yet surreal. On the plus side, a lot of businesses and establishments have gotten creative as they reopen their doors to the public, for instance putting up plastic or wooden walls between tables indoors. Some have used the confinement as a period of renovation and reinvention. So yes, it is a welcome (if not also scary) feeling of getting some form of social life back, even if it is under the guise of this new “normal” (a sort of alternate reality) that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Indeed, as the government itself has stressed, the crisis is not yet over and it is vital that everyone sticks to the safety restrictions in order to avoid (or at least limit the scope of) a second infection wave. Personally, I am torn between wanting to return to some form of normality and stop living my life in fear of the virus, and not wanting to spread the virus further and unnecessarily put lives and the health system at risk.
On the other hand, perhaps some good has come out of this crisis: air pollution is down and the Luxembourg government recently announced plans to double subsidies for bikes and e-bikes to encourage the use of soft mobility. And like I mentioned before, lockdown has offered a break from hectic daily routines for some (others may disagree).
As an avid traveller myself, you might think I’d be overjoyed at the news that flights are resuming, borders are reopening and summer 2020 is not “cancelled”. But I worry this is premature – even in spite of the safety measures being implemented in airports and airlines. Obviously, this is a very difficult time for the travel and tourism industry and personally, I was devastated about missing my trip to Oz to visit my best friend in May (I was even more upset by KLM’s refusal to refund my cancelled flights, but that’s another story). However, health remains the number one priority. I for one won’t be rushing to hop on a plane anytime soon (something I never thought I’d hear myself say), as tempted as I may be by deals like Luxair’s 100,000 seat sale for €99 and even if this means not getting to see my family and friends in Northern Ireland at all this year. As much as I’m looking forward to travelling again in the future, my thinking is that these places will still be here after COVID-19, so for now, I just want to ensure that both myself and my loved ones are still around to visit those places when this is all “over”.
On the other hand, it is of course important to support local tourism and travel companies which have been hard hit by the crisis. That’s why I’m keen to make the most of what Luxembourg and the Greater Region have to offer this summer – an idea that was made even more attractive by the launch of a new domestic tourism campaign and the promise of €50 vouchers for all residents and cross-border workers over the age of 16 to be used on an overnight stay in one of Luxembourg’s hotels, hostels or campsites.
It is all a rather delicate balance and only time will tell what were the “right” choices. In the meantime, here’s to enjoying a gradual return to “normality” while not letting our guard down. Stay safe everyone!