Czech shoppers hit the stores for the first time in 2021

PRAGUE, May 10 (Reuters) - Czech stores opened on Monday for the first time in 2021, as the country gradually eased COVID-19 restrictions after having faced one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the pandemic.

For many shoppers it was a welcome chance to try on shoes and clothes again rather than relying on online shopping, which has helped retailers survive nearly continuous lockdown restrictions since October.

“I will definitely be buying summer things first,” said Vera Lazakova as she browsed a Prague shopping mall. She added that she would not miss visits to the post office to send back online purchases that did not fit.

Prague watch store owner Jiri Wildt said the re-opening could help him return to profit.

“People only came to the window (for services during lockdowns) and the profit then was, at most, enough to maintain our operations,” he told Reuters.

Non-essential retail outlets last opened briefly for several weeks in December before a rise in infections - the second in a series of three spikes since October - led to renewed restrictions.

The country of 10.7 million people has been hit hard by the coronavirus, along with others in central Europe - a region where the initial wave of the pandemic a year ago was relatively small.

In the Czech Republic, deaths from COVID-19 total nearly 30,000, and the country has the second highest deaths per capita rate in the world behind Hungary, according to Our World in Data.

Daily COVID-19 cases have subsided over the last month, hospitalisations are at their lowest since October and vaccinations are picking up after a sluggish start.

Hair and beauty salons reopened a week ago and discussions are under way to open restaurant terraces in the coming weeks.

A major factor in deciding whether to re-open the economy is the seven-day incidence rate, which has fallen close to the government target of 100 cases per 100,000 over a week, eight times fewer than peaks seen during the last spike in March.

The government has wanted to see the seven-day incidence rate fall to 75 before further easing.

Reporting by Jiri Skacel, additional reporting and writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Mike Collett-White