The Czech Republic has so far managed to escape the worst of COVID-19 and it’s all been done with outdoor life continuing relatively normally.
Nurseries, gyms and small shops reopened this week and by May 25 almost all business activity is set to resume.
At the time of writing, the country — population 10.6 million — has seen 270 COVID-19 deaths and more than 8,000 infections.
That’s despite one of the facets of life under lockdown being the relative freedom to engage in outdoor activities, even though the government advises to the contrary.
Come 5 pm most evenings, parks and public squares in the eastern city of Olomouc, the countrys sixth-largest city and situated in one of the worst affected regions for the epidemic, are busy with people cycling, jogging or taking in a crisp spring sun. Groups sit around on the grass, sipping on beers sold at two busy outdoor cafes. A fortnightly farmers market has restarted in the citys main park.
While there have been reports of packed parks in Prague, it is thought enforcement of the rules is stricter in the capital than cities like Olomouc.
This is either because people are unsure of what exactly is the advice on outdoor activity, which sources put down to the governments below-par communication of lockdown rules and its often contradictory messaging, or because they openly flout the rules.
“The government has, at times, communicated in rather a chaotic way and it has not been clear what the rules are exactly. The Czech public has ridiculed this extensively,” said Richard Q Turcsányi, a university professor in Olomouc.
The latest weekly National Pandemic Alarm survey of Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians, Poles and Bulgarians, conducted by the pollster Network of European National Panels, found that Czechs were the least panicked by the crisis and thought themselves the least impacted by it. By far, the Czechs were the most optimistic about the future, of the five nationalities surveyed.
People who spoke to Euronews said they were mostly pleased about being able to exercise in public and visit parks. In comparison, several other European states, like France, Spain and the United Kingdom, have severely restricted free movement.
There is some evidence that suggests COVID-19 spreads less easily outdoors than indoors – though the scientific community has not expressly confirmed this, especially since they are dealing with a new virus.
One preprint study, meaning it is now under peer-review, released by Chinese researchers on April 7 measured three hundred and eighteen outbreaks of three or more cases across different parts of China, and “identified only a single outbreak in an outdoor environment”. The majority of transmissions took place in the home or inside public transport, it found.
Another preprint study, from Japanese researchers, found that the odds of “a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment.” In other words, direct transmission is almost 20 times more likely indoors compared to outdoors.
But when it announced the shutdown, the Czech government did not specifically ban people from going outdoors. Instead, it advised people to only venture outside for necessary activity – for essential work, shopping or to walk pets. But it has repeatedly flip-flopped on the specifics of what people can do outside, with Prime Minister Andrej Babis last month giving mixed messages on whether can openly drink beer it is means removing compulsory face masks.
Many were left confused about what or wasnt allowed. Others openly flouted the specifics. Indeed, while formally only groups of two were allowed to gather in public places – which this week was expanded to ten people – this has been frequently disobeyed for weeks, sources say.
“To be honest, Im confused about the rules we have had, and the rest of the people, too, as the government changed the rules every day,” said Michal Kalusek, who lives in Olomouc.
“Half of Czechs are happy and half angry about the rules, the handling the situation by the government, and about the information from the government,” he added.
However, the Czech governments main proviso to outdoors activity was that people must wear face masks, something that most Czechs agree with and have stuck to. A recent National Pandemic Alarm survey found that around 75 per cent of Czechs support this measure, making it the most praised government policy.
Analysts assert that because the countrys communist past – its communist system collapsed in 1989 – Czechs know how to push the limits of draconian laws without breaking them.
“Generally ‘avoiding’ of the rules is very widespread in Czech conditions and it is part of the heritage of communist times. It is very much related to the need to survive and live in the conditions of the old regime, which had formally strict rules,” said Lubomir Kopecek, a political science professor at the Masaryk University.
However, he noted that sometimes this legacy can be “overstated” and added that the public’s “compliance” with the government’s rules and advice was stronger in the first days and week of the coronavirus shutdown but weakened over time.
While the Czech government has certainly not shaped its policy to spur on outdoors activity, its phased re-opening of the economy has prioritised outdoors, rather than indoors, pursuits.
In early April, just three weeks after the shutdown was first ordered, the government allowed people to cycle and jog in parks and forests without face masks, so long as they remained two metres apart from others.
Sporting facilities, including golf courses, were also reopened in early April, while later in the month some gymnasiums and fitness centres reopened.
Even the first shops that were allowed to re-open in early April – home improvement stores, building supply stores and bicycle shops – were aimed at outdoors pursuits. On May 11, outdoor areas of bars and restaurants will be allowed to re-open. Only by the end of the month will indoor services at such establishments be allowed.
In fact, last week the government brought forward it phased re-opening of shops and economic activity, set out by a detailed five-step plan on April 15, by several weeks. There are now reports that other European governments, including the British government, are observing the Czech model of how to get the country back-to-business.