Brussels security lockdown hits businesses

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium may be famed for its chocolate and beer, but the lockdown imposed because of a national threat alert is creating a bad taste for many 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 — some shop owners say the attempts to shut down Brussels are too drastic.

"It's not a very good decision," said Esther Willems, assistant manager at the Galler chocolate shop in the heart of Brussels' city center. "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. It's too early to tell how much such measures will cost, but some businesses are feeling the pinch already.

Willems suspected the alert level had scared away tourists and hoped things would start to improve on Wednesday, once the city's subways and schools begin reopening. "The (government) measures are a little bit extreme," she said. "It's not like terrorists are just walking around the streets here."

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. She said her normal takings had been cut in half but 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; the alert was declared Saturday and will remain in place until Monday unless there is a significant development in the hunt for presumed terrorists on the loose.

Gan says he has closed about five hours early in recent days and that he is continuing to take deliveries even though nothing has been sold. "It cannot go on like this," he said of the ongoing uncertainty created by the threat level. "We are in the center of Brussels but even here there is nobody."