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Belgian port to test virus bracelets amid tech tracing fears

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In this Wednesday, April 22, 2020 photo, deckhand Gerard Bakulikira, wears a Romware COVID Radius digital bracelet, which flashes red when he is too close to someone else, as he walks on deck of a tugboat in the Port of Antwerp, Belgium. Europe's second biggest port is readying to test an electronic device aimed at helping people respect social distancing as the spread of the coronavirus eases and they return to work. From next month, two teams of workers at the Belgian port of Antwerp will be wearing chunky plastic bracelets that vibrate and flash lights when they get too close to each other. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

ANTWERP – As the spread of the coronavirus eases and people gradually return to work pondering the impact it might have on their jobs, Europe’s second-biggest port is getting ready to test a device aimed at helping thousands of people employed there to respect social distancing.

At Antwerp in Belgium, where some 900 companies operate in an area the size of a small town, two teams of port workers will be wearing next month a bracelet originally designed to find tugboat crew members that have fallen overboard but now modified to help stop the spread of the disease.

Until a vaccine is found, respecting Europe’s recommended safe distance of 1.5 meters (around five feet), regular hand-washing and the use of masks remain the best methods to defend against any new virus outbreak. So, a mad scramble has begun to develop technologies to prevent its spread.

European countries are designing contact tracing apps for mobile phones to help locate outbreak sources. While they’re a powerful force for good, the various devices are raising concerns about privacy and just how intrusive they might become once they’re in people’s homes or the workplace.

The bracelets are worn like a watch. Coated in black plastic, they vibrate when they move to within three meters (about 10 feet) of each other. The vibration strength, similar to that of a mobile telephone but more obvious when attached to a wrist, increases the closer the bracelets get and warning lights flash.

“You have a helmet, and your safety shoes, and you have swimming vests. All these kinds of things. And now we’re adding a wearable on top of that to make sure that people are safe. And if something goes wrong, that it is being detected as soon as possible,” Antwerp Port Chief Technology Officer Erwin Verstaelen said.

The bracelets ensure physical distancing and collect no data. No plans have been announced at the port to use them to track workers’ movements or measure their performance as some companies elsewhere have explored doing. But they can be programmed to provide information.

“Social distancing and privacy is very important,” said John Baekelmans, CEO of Rombit, the company developing the bracelets. “We do not store any data. There is no communication going out of the bracelets whatsoever. It’s only there to keep people safe.”