March 12, 2020 / 2:59 PM / in 16 days

Dutch close museums, ban public gatherings amid virus outbreak

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Two of the Netherlands’ premier tourist attractions, the Rijksmuseum national gallery and Van Gogh museum, closed to the public on Thursday as a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people was imposed in response to the coronavirus epidemic.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte went on live television to explain the rare step, which will also trigger the cancellation of soccer matches, concerts and university lectures across the country of 17 million.

The country’s 150-member Parliament was to debate the measures on Thursday evening, but a third were to stay away in light of the public health measures announced by Rutte to minimise the risk of coronavirus infections.

The measures mark a strong escalation in the Dutch response to the global outbreak, after the number of new coronavirus infections in the Netherlands rose 22% from a day earlier to 614. Five people have died.

Rutte said people who could work at home should do so and companies should alternate staffing to reduce the further spread of infections. People with respiratory symptoms must stay home.

The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum, which attract millions of visitors to the Dutch capital every year, shut their doors at the end of Thursday to comply. The Anne Frank House will also be closed to visitors.

“We follow the news religiously but we just spent three hours in the museum and now the world has gone crazy,” said Heleen Robben, one of the last visitors to exit the Rijksmuseum.

The measures will remain in place until March 31.

However, schools, nursery schools and universities will remain open for now, Rutte said, as closing them would do more harm than good.

He said the government’s strategy is aimed at minimising disruptions to public life while reducing the risks for vulnerable groups.

“An important goal of the phased approach is to prevent such a peak in infections that would result in the hospitals being overwhelmed,” Rutte said.

But “closing schools would contribute very little to combating the crisis”, because infection rates in the education system have been low, he said.

The heightened precautions came at a “a possible turning point” in the coronavirus epidemic in the Netherlands, said Jaap van Dissel, the head of the Dutch Centre for Infectious Disease Control.

He said that difficulties in tracing the origin of the virus in cases in the southern province of Noord-Brabant, as well as some in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, made “it necessary to advise additional measures”.

“So we have reached the phase in some parts of the Netherlands, especially in Brabant as has been said, in which we’re tipping” from a containment phase to a mitigation phase, he said.

Elderly people were advised to avoid groups and public transport. Universities were told to hold large classes online when possible, and medical staff were instructed not to travel abroad.

Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Heinrich

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