As Brussels lockdown hits businesses, some say measures too dramatic and cutting into profits

BRUSSELS – Belgium may be famed for its chocolate and beer, but the lockdown imposed on the capital because of the highest-level security alert is leaving a bad taste for many visitors and businesses.

While few doubt the government’s need to protect the public from a Paris-style attack — which officials have warned is a “serious and imminent” threat in Brussels — some shop owners say the attempts to shut down the city are too drastic.

Many shopping centres have been largely deserted since the threat alert was imposed Saturday and the limits are becoming more problematic by the day as the Christmas season approaches.

Tourist centres beyond Brussels are also feeling the pinch, and one cruise ship in Zeebrugge, close to Bruges, even decided to skip an outing.

“It’s not a very good decision,” Esther Willems, assistant manager at the Galler chocolate shop in the heart of Brussels’ city centre, said of the lockdown in the capital. “In the last two days, we have only had about 10-11 clients.” Normally, they would have around 100.

The lockdown has closed the capital’s subways and schools. Officials have recommended that popular shopping districts be shuttered and advised people to avoid public places since they could be targets for attacks. The Belgian government says the threat alert will remain in place until Monday unless there is a significant development, though schools and transport will start reopening Wednesday.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a global travel warning amid increased terror threats worldwide.

It’s too early to tell how much such measures will cost. Some businesses are feeling the pinch already, but some experts are hopeful they will prove only temporary.

“If (the government) decides on Monday that the threat level goes down, I would expect normal actions will resume quite quickly and losses will be recovered,” said Michael Dooms, a business professor at Brussels University.

Despite widely broadcast pictures of armed soldiers protecting sites like Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Brussels’ Grand Palace, he doubted there would be much lasting damage to Europe’s reputation as a place to visit.

“Image concerns in disruptive events tend to be temporary,” Dooms said. “People tend to forget about these problems if they’re solved relatively quickly.”

Willems of the Galler chocolate shop suspected the alert level had scared away tourists and hoped things would start to improve on Wednesday. “The (government) measures are a little bit extreme,” she said. “It’s not like terrorists are just walking around the streets here.”

In Paris, three of the city’s top museums, including the Louvre, reported a 30 per cent drop in ticket sales in the two weeks since the terrorist attacks and officials there are working on a short-term plan to bolster tourism.

With many shops closed in downtown Brussels, Rachel Van der Veken’s Maxi-Bagi cafe sandwich shop in the Passage Du Nord was one of the few still open.

“I don’t want anyone else to decide my life,” she said. “If I stay at home and accept this situation, it’s like I accept what the terrorists are saying.”

Still, Van der Veken said that she had had zero customers on Saturday. Since then, her normal takings have been cut in half but she acknowledged it was impossible to say whether Belgian officials are overreacting. “You can never say it’s too high a cost because you have to protect your people, but why didn’t they act before Paris? They knew there was always this threat.”

Some businesses dependent on tourists have been hit particularly hard.

At the Hotel Metropole, armed soldiers were keeping patrol outside the entrance while staffers inside stood idly behind the reception desk, with no hotel guests to serve. A sign warned potential customers that for “security reasons” the hotel’s cafe was closed but that room service was still available.

Zerif Gan, who runs a souvenir shop opposite the normally swarming rue de la Bourse, said he didn’t have a single customer all week-end. He has closed about five hours early in recent days and is continuing to take deliveries even though nothing has been sold.

“It cannot go on like this,” he said. “We are in the centre of Brussels but even here there is nobody.”