Czech schools, libraries, zoos and some stores reopened on Monday after months of coronavirus closures in one of the world’s worst-hit countries.
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 classes, 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.”
Kristyna Franova said her daughter was looking forward to returning to school along with her older sister, who still has to stay at home as higher grades remain closed for now.
“We do not mind the testing, what we do mind is its low effectiveness, because if the tests have 40% reliability then it’s worthless and a joke,” she said.
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 countries 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 policy turnarounds by the government which has admitted reopening too quickly in the past.
It said last week that the end of the state of emergency meant a ban on meetings of more than two 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.
Zoological gardens were among sites allowed to reopen on Monday for the first time since December.
“People are coming despite the cold weather,” said Prague Zoo director Miroslav Bobek. “For us this was something terrible. A closed zoo is defying its purpose.”
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.
The Czech Republic has also been among the slowest countries in the EU to administer vaccinations, having given 2.09 million doses to 1.37 million people as of Sunday.