THE HAGUE, Netherlands - (AP) -- The new Dutch government met Thursday to discuss whether to extend or ease its coronavirus lockdown amid growing anger among owners of businesses that have been shuttered for weeks.
The Netherlands has been in a strict lockdown since mid-December, with measures including all nonessential stores, bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters and museums closing their doors, while European neighbors such as Germany and Belgium have imposed far fewer restrictions.
That has led to frustration particularly in towns and cities close to the borders that are seeing people shuttling across borders to shop or dine out.
The lockdown is in place until at least the end of Friday. Prime Minister Mark Rutte and new Health Minister Ernst Kuipers will hold a press conference Friday evening to announce the future of the measures.
Dutch media, citing unnamed sources in The Hague, reported that the government plans to ease the lockdown by allowing non-essential stores to resume business with people who make appointments, permitting businesses like hairdressers and gyms to reopen and letting university and other higher education students return to classes. Elementary and high schools re-opened earlier this week. The government did not comment.
Some businesses are planning to open their doors on Saturday regardless of whether lockdown measures remain in force.
Shop owners in the Wyck neighborhood of the southern city of Maastricht, near the borders with Germany and Belgium, posted messages on social media to say they would open from noon until 5 p.m. on Saturday, and stores in other towns made similar plans.
In Dordrecht, near Rotterdam, business owners made their views clear by renaming shopping streets Antwerp -- a reference to a Belgian city that has drawn thousands of Dutch visitors during the lockdown.
The city's mayor, Wouter Kolff, tweeted that he had “a lot of understanding and appreciation for this playful action by our Dordrecht entrepreneurs.”
Despite the Dutch lockdown, which was imposed until at least midnight Friday, an omicron-fueled surge in infections has seen record numbers of new cases in recent weeks, although hospital and intensive care unit admissions have fallen.
When the lockdown was announced on Dec. 18, the head of the Dutch public health institute, Jaap van Dissel, described it as a preventative measure that would “buy time” for more people to get booster vaccines and for the nation's health care system to prepare for a possible new surge in infections.
The booster drive was slow to get started in the Netherlands, but has gathered pace in recent weeks. Just over 86% of adults are fully vaccinated and 45% have had a booster shot.
Many businesses are now calling for a relaxation of measures despite omicron spreading even more easily than previous coronavirus strains. Early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.
Two prominent organizations representing Dutch businesses this week added their influential voices to calls for an easing.
“Policy should be fully focused on reopening the economy from Jan. 15," the employers and small business organizations said in a joint statement. “The lockdown is no longer feasible for entrepreneurs or for society as a whole and all other countries in Europe are also largely open.”