Czech schools, shops reopen after long COVID-19 shutdown

PRAGUE (Reuters) -Czech schools, libraries, zoos and some stores reopened on Monday after months of coronavirus closures in one of the world’s worst-hit countries.

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A six-month state of emergency expired at midnight, lifting restrictions on movement including a night-time curfew and a ban on non-essential travel among districts.

Children in pre-schools and grades 1-5 returned to school, mostly on a weekly rotating basis. Pupils must take a nasal swab test twice a week.

“It is hugely visible on these young children when they are not in school,” said father Rudolf Zurek, accompanying his daughter inside a Prague school. “This is good and I only hope that it lasts, that it is not overturned in a month and children go back home.”

The Health Ministry reported 976 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, the lowest daily number since September. The seven-day average dropped to below 4,000, still high compared with most European Union states but down from over 12,000 in early March, when the toughest lockdown was imposed.

Many Czechs have been exhausted by the lengthy shutdowns, as well as government policy turnarounds, while the government has admitted reopening too rapidly in the past.

Last week, the government said the end of the state of emergency meant that a ban on meetings of more than 2 people inside and outside would be changed to 10 inside and 20 outside.

But after an expert group warned against going too far, the new health minister – the fourth since September – said at the weekend the change would not happen, drawing a barrage of criticism including legal challenges.

Many people have ignored the ban on gatherings and consumption of alcohol in public spaces. Parks in Prague were packed last weekend during a sunny spell.

The government has kept non-essential shops, restaurants and sport and entertainment centres shut since October except for a brief re-opening in December that was quickly reversed.

The country of 10.7 million has reported 1.58 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started in March 2020 and deaths are nearing 28,000, the highest per-capita rate in the world, according to Our World in Data.

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