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Wednesday, April 8 World News

Too close for comfort: Belgium agrees to shut hair salons

BRUSSELS (AP) — When the Belgian government announced last week that hairdressers would still be able to operate during the coronavirus epidemics, many in the profession were dumbfounded and furious.

Fearing for their health and bereft of the same financial benefits as other businesses which had been forced to close, angry hairdressers across the country called on the government to order the closure of all salons. Their protests paid dividends Tuesday, as Belgium's Prime minister Sophie Wilmes announced that all salons would shut down by midnight.

“We are so happy. Hairdressers will finally be allowed to return to their homes and to safely wait for the epidemic to end," Mitch Mues, spokesman for Coiffure.org, the federation of Belgian hairdressers, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Hairdressers had complained about the lack of consideration for their health and being treated differently from other non-essential businesses which had been ordered to close. Under economic measures announced by the government, they were entitled to a nearly 1,300-euros ($1,400) monthly replacement income through the unemployment system. But because they had not been forced to shut down, they could not claim the same level of compensation offered to other businesses if they decided to close their shops.

For instance, while a restaurant forced to close in the French-speaking Walloon region received a 5,000-euro ($5,400) indemnity, hairdressers could only get 2,500 euros ($2,700) for the loss of activity.

“Our health is the most important thing," Mues said. But it's also very important for us to get the same treatment as others. Now we will get the same compensation."

Although hair salons were only allowed to stay open by appointment with one client at a time, the government's decision to keep them open during the crisis had left health professionals gobsmacked.

The hairdressers exception came as other stringent lockdown measures were ordered, including for Belgian residents to stay at home and avoid contact outside of their family as much as possible. Authorities have repeatedly urged social distancing and said people should keep at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) from others.

According to the Belgian union, which represents 20,000 hairdressers, respecting such guidelines did not make sense in their trade.

“It's basically impossible to leave a space of 1.5 meters between the hairdresser and the customer," Mues said. “If a customer coughs, the hairdressers can't protect themselves."

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and there are more than 17,000 deaths worldwide confirmed so far.

Many salons owners had not waited for Wilmes' move to close. Pierrot Corthouts, who manages a Jacques Dessange parlor in Brussels, said he sent all employees home last week after the brand decided to close all its franchises in France and Belgium,

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“We are too close, it's not safe, for both the hairdresser and the customer," he said.

In neighboring Germany, hair salons were closed Monday as part of the latest restrictions. In Spain, they were initially listed along with supermarkets, tobacco shops and gas stations as exceptions from an order to stop most commercial activity. The argument at the time was that hair salons were a matter of basic hygiene. But authorities reversed that exception almost immediately following protests from hairdressers’ unions.

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Geir Moulson in Berlin and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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