Coronavirus: Czech business group slams opaque, ‘discriminatory’ timetable for reopening shops, services

Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová / Czech Radio

With the coronavirus pandemic now seemingly under control in the Czech Republic, the government this week rolled out a plan to reopen certain types of shops and services over the coming seven weeks, in five stages. The plan has come under fire by groups such as the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism, which finds the scope and timetable “discriminatory” in some cases and altogether “unreasonably slow”.

Tomáš Prouza,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki / Czech Radio
The government’s timetable envisions a gradual reopening of shops and services under strict hygiene conditions between April 20 and June 8. First to reopen will be farmers markets, for example, followed by shops of up to 1,000 square metres and gyms as of May 12, and restaurants and cafés with outdoor gardens and hairdressers as of May 25., and finally of big shopping centres and indoor food sector businesses as of June 8.

Tomáš Prouza, president of the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism, says the government failed to consult representatives of the affected sectors or explain its decision-making process and the respective thresholds for reopening businesses. Furthermore, he says, the measures are “discriminatory”.

“First of all, we’re still puzzled as to what model the government is using to evaluate the evolution of the epidemic, what are the thresholds that would slow the process or allow the government to move faster than they have proposed. We still see this lack of accountability on the government’s side.

“The second main issue we see with the proposal is that it seems very slow. The number of [coronavirus] cases has dropped significantly, but still the government is talking about opening most stores only in June, with quite a few restrictions remaining through the summer, including travel bans and significant limits on tourism activity.

“The third main challenge we see is that in the past the government has always looked at individual sectors, so here they would allow opening all food stores, all stores selling household goods. And all of a sudden, they switched to limiting the opening of shops based on square footage.

“This will of course help the small stores, but if there is a competitor selling similar goods that is a bit larger, that shop would be significantly disadvantaged might even go out of business if it opens three weeks later than its competitor.”

The Association of Shopping Malls, for example, has also protested against the government’s timetable, arguing that it discriminates against their members, which could easily meet the strict hygiene norms required of stores allowed to open sooner.

But above all, Mr Prouza says, business leaders have been frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of transparency and communication beyond making pronouncements.

Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová / Czech Radio
“Very often when we’ve asked the government why they made specific decisions, they have said ‘This is what the people wanted.’ I actually see a much stronger effect from Facebook posts than from industries lobbying. So, that is always why we are so worried – that there is no consultation process.

“In comparison, what I hear from my colleagues from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and many other European countries is that their governments actually talk with the businesses, discusses their thinking and how to be most effective. And we see nothing of the kind in the Czech Republic.”

Weeks ago, the Czech government adopted a short-time work scheme – a ‘kurzarbeit’ system – whereby it pays a large share of idle employees’ salaries in order to help companies avoid layoffs. But Tomáš Prouza says it didn’t go far enough.

“In Germany, the kurzarbeit assistance money to help retain jobs is paid by the government directly to employees. In the Czech Republic, the company must first find some money to pay its employees and then ask for reimbursement. So, in terms of non-existent cash flow in many of these Czech companies, it is actually killing them instead of helping them keep their people employed.”

Uncertainty as to what government support may be available to struggling shops and services after they reopen or resume full operations is also a major concern, according to the Czech Confederation of Commerce and Tourism president.

“A lot of assistance is extended only until stores and shops open, but for many the uptake of customers will be quite slow for the first few months. … So, I think what we significantly lack at this moment is the promise of the government how they will continue assistance until the situation really normalizes. Not only opening the shops and then stopping the assistance.”