Prague's Christmas markets are opening amid a Covid surge – here are the rules for visiting

Concerns are being raised about whether the Czech Republic’s traditional Christmas markets can go ahead as planned as Covid cases skyrocket. Staff

Written by Staff Published on 18.11.2021 10:42:00 (updated on 18.11.2021) Reading time: 4 minutes

The annual advent markets are among the most treasured of holiday traditions in the Czech Republic, particularly in Prague, where in pre-pandemic times an average of almost 300,000 tourists celebrated Christmas including visits to the famous markets.

In 2020, however, the markets were canceled due to soaring coronavirus numbers with Prague councilor Jan Chabr saying, “Given the epidemiological situation, it would probably be very inappropriate to hold Christmas markets." Neighboring countries are facing a similar dilemma: Munich has already canceled its Christmas markets despite a lower Covid incidence rate than in the Czech Republic.

In the Czech Republic, Covid numbers are far higher than they were this time last year, and yet the first Christmas markets are due to open this week, with the Náměstí Míru market opening on Nov. 20 and the largest, Old Town Square market set to open on Saturday, Nov. 27. With a steep increase in Covid cases leading the government to introduce an effective lockdown for the unvaccinated and a ban on large-scale events, how can markets ensure their events are safe?

In response to the rapidly rising case numbers, the Ministry of Health has decided to limit capacities for public events to 1,000 people. Naturally, outdoor Christmas markets are attended by a far greater number. The government has also decided to ban unvaccinated people from events and services; but it remains to be seen how this measure will be enforced at open-air markets with no clearly defined entry and exit points.

The Chief Hygienist of the Czech Republic, Pavla Svrčinová, has already confirmed that the new rules against unvaccinated people will apply to Christmas markets. Those without vaccination or evidence of having undergone Covid infection in the last six months will not be able to attend the markets; this should be checked by market organizers, while police and hygiene authorities will be in place to carry out spot checks with the possibility of fines for people not meeting the required criteria.

Social distancing rules will apply, with stalls and tables at least two meters apart, each surface provided with a disinfectant dispenser, and attendees from different households told to stay at least 1.5 meters apart. These measures will allow markets to take place despite the ban on events with over 1,000 attendees; but will organizers be able to ensure the rules are adhered to?

"We will supervise the spacing of stalls; hand sanitizer will be available, and there will be message boards everywhere alerting the public to the regulations," said Hana Tietze, press spokesperson for Taiko, the organizers of the Old Town Square Christmas market.

"Measures will be in place according to the government regulations. There should be a program (of entertainment events to accompany the markets), but the market doesn't start for two weeks, so something else might have changed by then," she admitted.

It's unsurprising that updated Covid restrictions are causing uncertainty for market organizers. Anyone who has attended Christmas markets in Prague or elsewhere in the country knows these are busy, convivial affairs; hardly the sort of environment in which people can be expected to maintain strict social distancing at all times. Last year, a rise in Covid case numbers around the festive season came back to bite with high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in January, even though Christmas markets were canceled as a precaution.

If markets go ahead as planned this year, could we be about to see an even more serious epidemiological situation after the Christmas period?

Health experts certainly think so, with one epidemiologist telling “the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again (in our case, doing nothing), and expecting different results.”

Minister of Health Adam Vojtěch has meanwhile called on people to avoid large-scale public events where possible and limit their contacts. He has also said people should wear respirators and maintain social distancing at outdoor events, mentioning the Christmas markets as an example.

Yet it appears the markets will go ahead despite the unease of health authorities about their possible negative effect on the development of the pandemic. Some elements may be particularly risky for the spread of Covid, such as the traditional distribution of free soup on December 24, which normally attracts huge queues. It's difficult to see a solution to such problems besides full cancelation, which would be a disaster for the many producers who rely on high incomes during the festive season.

Last year’s cancelations showed that Christmas in the Czech Republic just isn’t the same without the Christmas markets. But all eyes are now on rising Covid numbers; given the drastic impact which the festive season is thought to have had on the pandemic in 2020, it remains to be seen whether holding traditional events will mean repeating the mistakes of a year ago.

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