By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgium has extended measures to control the spread of the coronavirus to May 3, with a slight easing of restrictions to allow home improvement stores and garden centres to open and limited visits to care homes.

Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes told a news conference on Wednesday her government and economic and medical experts would meet next week to organise a gradual return towards normality from early May.

“The prospect of a better future is within our reach,” she said. “The strategy will be based on certain pillars – maintaining a safe distance, large-scale screening and also tracing … and the development of new rules at the workplace.”

Wearing masks would also be a key part of the strategy. No large organised events would be held until at least early September and many people would still work from home, Wilmes said.

For now, home improvement stores and garden centres could reopen, albeit with social distancing in place.

Residents of nursing homes with elderly or disabled people could now identify a single person allowed to visit, provided that person had not shown any symptoms in the previous two weeks.

“It is not impossible some people will see this as an easing of the basic rules. But there is not the case. They remain as they are until May 3 and must absolutely be respected. We have not arrived at the stage of an exit,” she said.

Neighbouring France on Tuesday extended its lockdown measures until May 11.

Belgium’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases passed 33,000, with 4,440 deaths. Medical experts told a daily news conference it appeared a peak had been reached early in April, with the number of people admitted to hospital steadily falling since.

“What we observe is that, after a sharp increase in the number of cases, we now have a slow but real declining trend,” clinical microbiologist Emmanuel Andre said.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Jane Merriman and David Holmes)

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