Czechs ease more travel bans, add help for coronavirus-hit firms


PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic will lift a ban on international bus and train travel from May 11 as the government on Monday rolled back more of its measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak and added aid to hard-hit companies.

A virtual lockdown of the central European country in March has taken a harsh economic toll, with shuttered shops only now just getting back to business while manufacturing activity is at its weakest since the 2009 global financial crisis.

The government largely sealed borders in mid-March, a move seen throughout Europe as the outbreak grew. The state has already allowed Czechs to travel abroad again although those returning must show negative coronavirus tests or quarantine.

On Monday, it decided international bus and rail links can restart next week. However, operators said the renewal of routes will depend largely on neighbouring countries’ restrictions.

Tourism into the Czech Republic is still largely prohibited except for European Union business travellers and students. The government on Monday it would also allow non-EU citizens in for seasonal work or healthcare work from May 11.

The government also approved extended aid payments to small companies and self employed. The cabinet suspended an online sales reporting system, easing businesses’ costs.

The Industry Ministry will also prepare a plan to give rent relief to companies, agreeing to cover half the cost if landlords chip in 30%, minister Karel Havlicek said.

The government has pledged more than 1 trillion crowns ($40.24 billion) mostly in loan guarantees and direct aid for affected workers and firms. It is planning a record budget deficit of 300 billion crowns in 2020, more than seven times its original plan.

But some business groups have criticised the help as too slow and have pushed for a quicker relaunch of businesses.

The government, saying it was confident the outbreak was under control, has started speeding up its phased reopening.

It said last week it would allow the opening of cultural and sport events with up to 100 people from May 11, including cinemas, theatres and religious services. All face new hygiene rules. Shopping malls and larger shops are also due to open next week after small stores reopened last Monday.

Restaurants, pubs and hotels are due open on May 25.

The Czech Republic, a country of 10.7 million, had reported 7,799 cases of the virus by late Monday afternoon. Almost half have recovered and 251 deaths have been recorded.

* For an interactive graphic on cases in the Czech Republic:

($1 = 24.8490 Czech crowns)

Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Alison Williams