There's nothing like a pandemic to help a society sort out what it really values in life. In the case of Belgium, that turns out to be hot chips.

Silence has fallen on the grand boulevards of Europe, as one government after another has shut down daily life in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and elsewhere, citizens are allowed outside only for the most essential of needs.

People are generally allowed to go out to buy groceries. They can visit the doctor and the pharmacy. But, beyond that, what's considered essential varies from country to country, and many have allowed culturally flavoured exceptions.


Belgians can still get their fries

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In Belgium, people can still buy tasty, oil-fried chips from the iconic footpath stands, the friteries. Belgians, at least, think these fries are the best in the world.

Shut down Belgium's fries stands, apparently, and shut down the soul of the nation.

Leaders have avoided dealing such a grievous blow, even as they have closed down most other commerce in the country.

"The purpose is not to starve the population," Belgian Health Minister Maggie de Block said.

Leaders have simply exhorted Belgians not to stand too closely together in line as they wait for their chips, and not to linger once they get their orders. Other restaurants also are allowed to operate delivery services, even as much of the country went into a tightened lockdown today.

Bookstores also remain open, allowing anxious citizens the chance to pick up some light pandemic reading. (The Plague, by Albert Camus?) And, as in several other countries, hair salons are still open, though they can take only one client at a time.

People line up to enter in a supermarket to buy supplies in Brussels, Belgium.
People line up to enter in a supermarket to buy supplies in Brussels, Belgium.

The French can still get wine


France shut down most commerce on Tuesday. But the Government published about 40 categories of exceptions. The country will not have to do without its wine stores. And small-food-shop life can keep going, as bakeries, butchers, tobacco shops and fine grocers may remain open.

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The declaration led to some mixed feelings among wine sellers. They were delighted to be considered a cultural priority, but at least some of them thought it might be better to take a little vin break.

"It is a mark of confidence" from the French Government to allow wine shops to remain open during the lockdown, said Jean Guizard, the head of the French independent wine shops association, in a statement.

"But due to the scale of coronavirus pandemic, we strongly advise our colleagues not to open their shops, as a responsible public service," he said, "Act to protect ourselves and to protect others."

Several wine shops, instead of opening to be public, are offering delivery of "survival wine packs" of six or 12 bottles of wine. The French lockdown will last until at least April 16.

Police officers check a pedestrian in Boulogne Billancourt, France.
Police officers check a pedestrian in Boulogne Billancourt, France.

The Dutch can still buy cannabis


In the Netherlands, leaders have declared cannabis a coronavirus-era priority. The decision may help ease anxieties in a pandemic-stricken nation.

Authorities last weekend initially indicated an intention to close most shops, including the country's famous marijuana-selling coffee shops. Dutch residents and tourists rushed to get cannabis-related products.

Some leaders feared the drug trade would be pushed into the streets, potentially creating additional health risks and strengthening criminal networks.

"The emerging street trade is a great risk," the Mayor of the Dutch city of Breda, Paul Depla, told Binnenlands Bestuur, a Dutch magazine. "It is difficult to get the genie back into the bottle afterward. Will customers return to the coffee shops soon? That is why I am pleading for the takeaway function."

Officials ultimately backtracked, allowing the coffee shops to reopen their takeaway counters. Customers can't light up in the shops anymore, though, in a nod to social distancing.

Amsterdam's famed red light district, apparently, is nonessential, or at least has been deemed a place where the virus is likely to spread. It will remain closed until at least April 6.

A man talks on his mobile phone outside a closed tennis club in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
A man talks on his mobile phone outside a closed tennis club in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Germans can still rent and buy bikes


In Germany, life is less locked down than elsewhere in Europe, and each German state can decide for itself what will remain open and what will close. But bike shops have been singled out by national and some state authorities as essential assets.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn encouraged Germans to get around by bike as a healthy, social-distancing-appropriate mode of transportation, in preference to trains and buses.

Bicycling is "infection-proof," Germany's two largest bike industry associations said in a statement.

The guidance contrasts with Spain, where authorities have counselled the populace to avoid bicycling for fear that accidents could burden a healthcare system that is nearing its breaking point.


Italians can still read print newspapers


Italy remains the European country hardest-hit by the novel coronavirus, and there are few exceptions to its near-total shutdown. But news stands remain open, a quaint and sweet measure that allows older residents a chance to read the papers.

"I'm mostly sealed indoors," Rome news stand owner Ivano Canni said. "I'm trying to stand 2m apart from others. I open my door to let fresh air in for half an hour or so, then close it back."

A small number of bread shops and bakeries have decided to stay open for takeaway service or delivery. And at least one Roman gelateria is doing deliveries.

"We are distant but we remain present," the Fior di Luna gelateria wrote on Instagram.