Students cheer on a terrasse of a cafe in Amsterdam on June 25, 2021 when the Netherlands eased Covid-19 restrictions.

PAUL BERGEN | AFP | Getty Images

Rule-breaking in cafes and bars in the Netherlands is a persistent problem that the hospitality industry must deal with, the country’s prime minister said as the nation battles with a surge in Covid-19 infections.

Speaking Monday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte implored the industry to make customers adhere to the rules on social distancing and remain sitting down in their assigned seats, adding that this was critical given the high number of infections.

“With regard to the hospitality industry, we would like to point out that it is going well in many places, but in too many places it is not and it is extremely important,” Rutte said at a brief news conference Monday afternoon.

Rutte said the police cannot monitor tens of thousands of bars, cafes and restaurants in the Netherlands to make sure they are complying with the rules of social distancing and seating customers, “so we really have to do that together,” he said. “With the current infection figures, we don’t want to have to take extra measures,” he added.

Not enough social distancing

Rutte’s comments come as the Netherlands scrambles to contain a surge in Covid infections, mainly among younger people. Amid a fit of optimism over its vaccination program, the Dutch government announced in late June that most restrictions would be lifted, apart from the 1.5 meter social distancing rule, and that nightclubs would be allowed to reopen.

Cases soon began to soar, however, surging eightfold in just one week to around 10,000 cases on July 10, prompting the government to perform a U-turn and for Rutte to apologize for lifting restrictions too soon.

The government conceded that the “coronavirus infection rate in the Netherlands has increased much faster than expected since society reopened almost completely on 26 June.”

“Most infections have occurred in nightlife settings and parties with high numbers of people,” it said, as it forced nightclubs to close down again on July 10.

While bars, restaurants and cafes have been allowed to remain open and can operate at 100% capacity, there are strict rules in place.

People must be assigned seats and keep a 1.5 meter distance if sitting inside, unless hygiene screens are placed between tables. For outdoor service, social distancing is not necessary. Entertainment, including live performances and TV screens, is not permitted and loud music may not be played, government rules state. Venues must close at midnight.

Coen Berends, a spokesperson for the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, told CNBC on Tuesday that it was “impossible to calculate the effect of this ‘rule breaking'” in bars, cafes and restaurants.

“In general we model the effects of the applied rules and can also model the effect of the absence of rules. These models predict the effect of a whole package of measures, but can’t discriminate between different rules or the lack of compliance to a specific rule. In general our Management Outbreak Team advises the rules on social distancing and sitting in assigned seats in bars and restaurants to diminish spreading of the virus. So, disobeying these rules might definitely have an effect. Especially with the now dominant Delta variant of the virus,” he said.

“We do not, however, know the extent of this effect. It will certainly not have the massive effect that opening clubs and organizing large events had a couple of weeks ago. We see a stabilization of the numbers of positive tests now. So it seems the latest measures made by our government are successful. We will still have to see what the effect is on [the] number of hospitalizations,” Berends noted.

Infections running high

The Netherlands is certainly still in a difficult position when it comes to Covid infections, however, lying just below the U.K. in terms of its high infection rate in Europe but further behind when it comes to vaccinations. In the U.K., 68.5% of adults are fully vaccinated, in the Netherlands, it’s just above 50%, the latest available data shows.

On Monday, Jaap van Dissel, chair of the government’s Outbreak Management Team and director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Control, warned that in the past seven calendar days (measured from July 9-15), the number of reports of Covid-positive individuals has increased by 298%, compared with the previous seven days.

“Since the relaxation of the measures on June 26, there has been a strong increase of the number of infections among 18-29 year-olds,” van Dissel said in an open letter to the country’s director-general of public health. He said it was too early to tell what impact the tightening of measures would have.

On Monday, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge expressed the hope that cases were stabilizing and would begin to fall. Speaking alongside Rutte on Monday, de Jonge said that “over the past week … the number of positive test results has stabilized and that means that growth is not continuing. I think that’s positive.” 

“At the same time, we have to say: The number of positive test results at this level, of around 10,000 per day over the past week, is of course too high and that must of course be reduced.” 

He said the country must work hard to reduce the number of infections, echoing Rutte’s call for the 1.5 meter social distancing rule to be adhered to “in the hospitality industry, on the street and also at home when we receive guests. … We really need that 1.5 meter space for the time being to ensure that we will keep that epidemic under control.”