The long-awaited lifting of the regulation – imposed in March shortly after a state of emergency was declared – coincided with the final phase of an easing of lockdown restrictions, in which pubs, restaurants, hotels and museums have been fully reopening their doors.
Czech officials have pressed ahead with a phased easing of restrictions amid a consistent decline in the number of confirmed cases. The health minister, Adam Vojtěch, declared last week that “the Covid-19 crisis is behind us”.
Health ministry figures reported 8,932 confirmed cases as of 24 May, with nearly 400,000 tests performed. There have been 315 deaths.
The Czech Republic was among the first countries in Europe to close its borders against the spread of coronavirus, on 12 March, ordering the closure of most businesses days later.
But the mask edict – in common with neighbouring Slovakia – quickly became the symbol of the Czech fight against the pandemic, prompting debate in other countries over whether they should follow suit.
The rule was imposed by prime minister Andrej Babiš’ government after Prague city council initially introduced it for travelling on the capital’s public transport network.
It was quickly embraced by the public despite the government coming under fire for failing to provide emergency facewear. People were encouraged to make their own masks at home, while students at fashion schools worked to provide them on a voluntary basis.
The psychological effect was clear on Monday, as many people continued to wear masks outdoors despite the ending of the regulation. Some said they did not know why they continued to wear them despite it no longer being required.
“I was in some institutions this morning that don’t allow people in without masks, but I have just become used to it,” said Natasha Manakoski, a 35-year-old architect walking through a square in Prague’s fashionable Vinohrady neighbourhood wearing a black mask, in common with many other pedestrians.
“Maybe I feel a little bit safer with the mask, although it feels better without it.”
Masks are still mandatory on public transport and in indoor facilities where people cannot guarantee standing a minimum of 2 metres apart.
Pub and restaurant-goers are also expected to keep wearing masks when not eating or drinking.
In reality, the rule has become inconsistently observed lately. The limited reopening of bars and cafes to provide pavement service on 11 May created the anomalous situation of pedestrians wearing masks passing by busy table areas populated by drinkers not wearing them. Parents accompanying their children to parks have increasingly neglected to cover their faces.
Monday’s easing also meant the reopening of previously busy tourist attractions such as Prague Castle, which plans to admit visitors free of charge and without the standard security checks for a limited period, as officials seek to replace the disappearance of foreign tourists with more Czechs.
With plans for foreign holidays in disarray, the government has also said it would allow Czech citizens to visit neighbouring Austria and Slovakia from next month. Officials have said Czechs should limit any foreign holiday plans to countries with similar epidemiological trends to the Czech Republic.