Czechs ease lockdown, but extend state of emergency

Up to 10 people will be allowed to meet in public, while restrictions on non-essential travel are to be lifted.

    Easing of restrictions may be reversed if coronavirus infections spike again, said officials [David W Cerny/Reuters]
    Easing of restrictions may be reversed if coronavirus infections spike again, said officials [David W Cerny/Reuters]

    The Czech Republic eased restrictions on Thursday aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus after a drop in new cases sparked optimism the outbreak had so far been brought under control.

    The country lifted a ban on non-essential movement and travel abroad, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said after a government meeting.

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    The government will allow up to 10 people to meet in public - instead of the current two - as of Friday, and reopen universities as of Monday.

    The sharp policy turn also includes speeding up the opening of shops, but there was no change announced in the obligation to wear face masks in public or the ban on larger public gatherings or events.

    The Czech government has meanwhile approved plans to ask the lower house of parliament to extend the country's state of emergency until May 25, CTK news agency reported on Friday, citing Interior Minister Jan Hamacek.

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    The plan should go to lawmakers on Tuesday. The current state of emergency is in place until April 30 and gives the government powers to limit people's movements and close businesses.

    The central European country in March introduced what were at the time some of Europe's toughest measures to prevent an uncontrolled spike in the new coronavirus epidemic.

    Vojtech said the measures were key to avoid overwhelming hospitals and could now begin to be eased, as demanded by business groups as well as some senior medical experts, although epidemiologists have warned against hasty steps.

    "We have been able to manage the pandemic exceptionally well on the territory of the Czech Republic," Vojtech told a televised news conference.

    Those who travel abroad will have to present a negative coronavirus test upon return or be subject to two-week quarantine, he said. At the moment, only people visiting families or doctors and commuters are allowed to leave.

    The Interior Ministry said it was also slightly relaxing a ban on entry for foreigners to allow entry to university students and business travellers from the European Union, subject to conditions.

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    Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said that most shop openings would be sped up compared to what was planned in an earlier schedule.

    "There will be 14-day intervals [in the reopening], at the moment [the schedule] roughly copies what is done in Germany or Austria," he said.

    The relaxation followed analysis from health ministry experts that showed the reproduction factor of the virus was around 0.7. The number indicates how many people get infected by every newly infected person, and a figure below the neutral level of one means the epidemic is on the decline.

    The country has seen the daily increase of reported cases drop to an average of 119 in the past week, less than half of levels in early April.

    It has reported 7,138 cases in total, while the number of active cases fell below 5,000 on Wednesday for the first time since April 8. There have been 210 deaths.

    Havlicek said the easing may be reversed if the situation worsens again.

    From Monday, shops with floor space of up to 2,500sq metres (27,000sq feet) will reopen, along with fitness centres and libraries.

    Shopping centres and hairdressers were slated to open from May 11, while restaurants, hotels, theatres and most other services will begin to open on May 25.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency