COVID-19 and public space in the Netherlands

By Sanne Hieltjes posted 12-06-2020 01:59


Covid-19 and public space in the Netherlands

On March 12, 2020 the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte declared an ‘intelligent lockdown’ for the entire country. People were asked to work from home, stay indoors and limit the use of both public transit and public spaces. Construction and maintenance were however allowed to continue.

During the first phase of the lockdown, Stadswerk offered municipalities support by taking stock of the means in which the safety of their employees could best be guaranteed while working in public spaces. Also inventoried were the processes which were most essential in the event a severe corona escalation should take place.

During the second phase of the lockdown there was a gradual ease on the preventive measures. Stadswerk gathered information from municipalities in order to support smart distancing (1 ½ meter) within public spaces.

Phase 1: Safety while working in public spaces

In most municipalities, the outdoor services remained fully operational. However, the maintenance levels and requirements could not always be met. All municipalities state to have followed the directives while working, as set out by the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment). Employees within risk groups and those with health issues were instructed to stay home.

At all possible times work was done on an individual basis or in small groups in alternate shifts. Physical contact with residents was, if possible, avoided. As such, the handling of civic services was done digitally of by phone. In the event of physical contact with residents, only then in accordance with the distancing guidelines. No more than two employees traveled together by car or van. Vehicles were equipped with water, soap and dry towels in order to wash hands. Breakrooms and cafeterias were closed.

According to all municipalities the most essential process was that of "burials". In many municipalities extra workers were requested to be made available for standby duty. Thankfully, the Dutch corona crisis did not result or lead to an undesirable strain on crematoriums and cemeteries.

Other essential processes were sewage, pumps and ground properties. The support of emergency services during calamities, traffic safety and traffic control systems. Heightened pressure was felt within the cleaning and waste management branch. In some instances, volunteers were put to work.

If, and when possible, digital tools were used in order to remotely get done what was needed. Interchangeability of jobs and training while scaling down essential processes was done by means of protocols and schedules.

Phase 2 Safety first while reopening the public space

As lockdown measures eased, the following question arose. How in such a busy and densely populated country can we continue to safely make use of our public space? How can we keep our physical distance (1 ½ meter) amongst each other?

Based upon the following four functions within the public space, 10 municipalities took part in a videoconference contemplating the various possibilities and options.

1. Movement

2. Stay

3. Leisure

4. Reopening

A tremendous amount of consideration went out towards reopening. The food service industry made a strong appeal for permits allowing larger terraces. In addition, we also noticed that especially during good weather, both "stay" and "leisure" in parks and beaches, were at risk for becoming potentially unsafe due to the large crowds and the number of people who were unable to keep sufficient distance from each other.

Four groups of measures

The measures taken by municipalities can be divided into 4 groups

1. Communication, positive reinforcement for good behavior

2. Physical measures/guidelines

3. ICT, Crowd management

4. Enforcement and supervision

During a digital consultation between all of the Dutch municipalities ideas and measures were collected and published on a special website: As we move forward, the majority of all municipalities are working hard towards the responsible use of public space by means of communication and positive reinforcement of good behavior. While residents and visitors make use of the public space, stewards and service employees are there to point them in the right direction. In addition, physical measures have also been taken. Some measures more creative than others, such as a pedestrian roundabout in the middle of a shopping district in the city center of Utrecht. Or simply more space for cyclists and less for vehicles. Surveillance cameras and mobile phone data are used to monitor high density traffic areas. In addition, interns are also being used to monitor well-know hotspots. According to policymaker’s stricter enforcement and supervision are the final key to making this approach successful. It appears based on our questionnaire that enforcement and supervision play nearly as much of an important role than that of communication and positive reinforcement. And who knows, perhaps the line between both measures is less sharp than often thought: The service-oriented by-law officer. Your friend the policeman.