Austrian, Czech officials plan to ease some virus measures

BERLIN (AP) — Austria and the Czech Republic moved Monday to start relaxing some of their restrictions for curbing coronavirus infections, getting ahead of European counterparts with plans to restore elements of pre-pandemic life in coming days.

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The Czech government will expand the kinds of retail stores that are allowed to do business starting Thursday to include shops selling construction materials, hobby supplies and bicycles, Industry and Trade Minister Karel Havlicek said. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and garden stores currently can open now.

The shuttered stores getting added to the list of those deemed essential will be required to make disinfectant and disposable gloves available at the entrance for customers and to enforce social distancing rules, he said. The government is set to consider this week whether to reopen more stores after Easter, Havlicek said.

In Austria, the government laid out a timetable for letting shops shuttered because of the virus pandemic to reopen in phases beginning a week from Tuesday. But Chancellor Sebastian Kurz cautioned that authorities could activate an “emergency brake” if the number of people with the virus accelerates again.

Speaking in Vienna, Kurz said the government's plan is to reopen small shops of less than 400 square meters (4,305 square feet), hardware stores and garden centers on April 14.

The number of individuals permitted inside will be limited, and all will have to wear face masks, as they already must do at Austria's supermarkets, he said. Individuals also will have to start wearing masks on public transportation.

Kurz said the next week “will be decisive in whether the resurrection after Easter that we all want can take place.” He said the government also is extending its three-week-old restrictions on public movement until the end of April.

Authorities hope to let remaining stores open May 1, including shopping malls and hair salons. The government doesn't plan to reopen restaurants and hotels until at least mid-May, and the decision will be made at the end of April.

After small shops are reopened next week, “we will watch things closely,” Kurz said. “If the (infection) figures continue to develop in the right direction, then the next step will take place on May 1. If we are not successful, then we must pull the emergency brake.”

Much of Europe was effectively shut down after clusters of COVID-19 cases first emerged in Italy in late February and other parts of the continent emerged as hot spots in the worldwide pandemic. Most governments still are talking publicly about the current health crisis instead of outiniexit strategies.

The Czech Republic and Austria, which are neighbors, introduced some of Europe's first border closures and other national policies in response to the coronavirus.

In addition to expanding shopping options, the Czech government approved a proposal Monday to ease a ban on citizens traveling abroad. Currently, Czechs are barred from leaving the country and foreigners are barred from entering it.

Havlicek said that starting on April 14, citizens would again have the option of traveling to other countries for business trips, to see relatives and for medical reasons, although upon return they will be be quarantined for two weeks.

Starting Tuesday, face masks no longer will be mandatory sportswear for joggers, bicycle riders and others engaging in solo athletic activities outdoors, the minister said. THey still will have to maintain a distance of two meters from others while getting exercise, he said.

“I take it as a test,” Health Minister Adam Vojtech said Monday about the new measures.

Like Austria, the country doesn’t plan to let up for Easter itself. Hamacek said restrictions on movement within the Czech Republic won’t be relaxed for Easter.

Austria reported some 12,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including 220 deaths, as of Monday, according to government figures. The Czech Republic had 4,735 cases and 78 deaths.

For most people, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause pneumonia and lead to death.

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Janicek reported from Prague.