In Brussels, police hunt curfew breakers
Patrolling the streets of Brussels in the dead of night, police are looking for shops or clandestine parties that are violating the city's antivirus curfew.
Life after dark in the Belgian capital is at a standstill, but Officer Bart Verbeeren says if you look closer, some stirrings of illegal nightlife can still be found -- like a hookah pipe bar he spotted only last week.
"The curtain is closed, the light is dimmed.... When you get closer, you hear noise inside: we found 30 or so people hiding in the back, almost all of them without masks: 37 fines in one go," he smiled.
Belgium is the European country worst affected by the second wave of the coronavirus.
In a bid to stop the spread of the pandemic, shops in this country of 11.5 million people must close at 8pm (1900 GMT) and food delivery at 10 pm (2100 GMT), when the curfew begins.
"The curfew is generally respected, but there are always a few who don't want to understand. Now the time for warnings is over," said Verbeeren as his patrol car prowled the city streets.
The car slowed at a shop where the lights were still on. A man with a shopping trolley darts out, narrowly avoiding the law.
The shopkeeper makes his case: "I was doing paperwork with my accountant!"
"Even an accountant has no reason to be out. No more exceptions, I'm not going to argue with you," said Verbeeren.
Illegal parties in private homes are the hardest to control. Contrite revellers answer the doorbell promising that the noise was just some music playing or a birthday toast with a sister or brother.
"We had a report of a night disturbance in a flat. The patrol knocked on the door, someone opened it, and you could immediately smell the smoke from the marijuana joints and hear the loud conversations," said the policeman, who gave everyone tickets.
The officers show leniency to youths caught out in the street with no masks.
"A hello, a smile and a simple reminder of the law does more than handing out fines," said Verbeeren.
"Put your scarf over your mouth and go home," an officer tells a group of beer-drinking men.
The police the spot a man coming out of a takeout shop with a piping hot pizza.
"I stopped taking orders on the app, it was the last one," the manager insists.
"People shouldn't be out on the street after 10pm! If that's when you give out the pizza, it doesn't work," explained Verbeeren, but doesn't give the man a fine.
Unseen by the policeman, a teenager -- without a mask -- enters the shop with 10 euros in his hand, scans the scene and prudently makes a quick exit.
Other shops play cat and mouse with the patrols, turning off their lights as the patrol car approaches. In the darkness you can just make out probable customers scampering from sight.
"Of course we understand everyone's frustration," said Rafael, an officer who declined to give his last name.
"But we're on the streets because we know the consequences: the overcrowded hospitals, the dead."