Eastern Europe largely avoided coronavirus 1st wave, now it's battling outbreaks and outrage over new restrictions

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BY: IBTESSEM GEUNFOUD and DRAGANA JOVANOVIC

(PRAGUE) -- At a "Farewell COVID" party in June, thousands of Prague residents dined outdoors at a 500-meter long table across the Charles Bridge to celebrate the end of the lockdown measures.

The Czech Republic was being hailed by the rest of Europe for successfully stopping the virus after closing its borders and putting in place the harshest lockdown on the continent. Now the country is in the midst of a strong outbreak, with case numbers rising above anything recorded in the spring -- and already there are signs renewed restrictions won't be greeted favorably.

The Czech Republic isn't alone. Little affected in the spring, many of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are now experiencing a strong outbreak of the novel coronavirus and officials are scrambling to reverse course on restrictions.

Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia all recorded their highest daily increases in cases on Friday.

"What we see here is what the other countries were facing over springtime and over the summer," Dr. Martin Balik, the head of the intensive care unit at the General University Hospital of Prague, told ABC News.

In the spring, Prague became the first European city to require face masks on public transportation and then all indoor public spaces, according to Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib. The country of 10 million had managed to avoid the full brunt of the first wave with fewer than 12,000 infections and 350 deaths.

"Within a few weeks we were able to really decrease the number of cases to almost ground zero," Health Minister Roman Prymula told ABC News, reflecting on the first wave. "And all the people were respecting ... were wearing masks in their homes, it was great. But recently it's completely different."

Now the Czech Republic is registering new records for daily cases, including more than 11,000 cases in a 24-hour span reported on Oct. 16.

The government announced the reintroduction of restrictions on Oct. 13 to curb the spread of the coronavirus, closing all schools except for kindergartens until Nov. 1, and restaurants, bars and clubs until the end of the state of emergency scheduled for Nov. 3. It has limited indoor and outdoor gatherings to six people at a time and curbed sales of alcohol in public.

Although the initial lockdown measures were successful in Central and Eastern Europe, acceptance of renewed restrictions will likely be hard.

"In the spring, everybody was supportive of the countermeasures -- everybody. But recently, it's a political fight," Czech Health Minister Roman Prymula told ABC News.

German authorities have also tried to institute new restrictions after a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, with little success and lots of backlash. An order for bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m. in Berlin was quickly overturned by local courts and regular protests against recently reintroduced COVID-19 measures have taken place since late August in the German capital.

Bulgaria's Health Ministry eased restrictive rules on nightclubs and certain gatherings, such as weddings, after meeting with representatives of the industries, according to local reports. The rollback was announced just three days after the health minister ordered the closure of indoor sections of nightclubs, bars and discos.

By comparison, in France, which suffered acutely under the first wave with over 28,000 deaths by the end of May, two-thirds of people approve of new curfew restrictions, according to a recent poll. The support comes despite a possible 1 billion euro hit to the economy, according to France's economy minister.

With economies on the brink, populations in Eastern Europe are less willing to cope with new measures. During the lockdown, the Czech economy lost 4 billion Czech koruna per day (about $171 million U.S.).

Restaurants that have been asked to close in Prague are looking to takeout to stay afloat. Olinka Budnik, a chef at the Black Madonna restaurant in Prague, said they have lost 30% of their income from last year. A hotel owner in the center of Prague told ABC News that they were expecting to close soon after the new restrictions. "We have no choice," she said.

In the Czech Republic, even health care professionals doubt the necessity of the measures.

Balik, the doctor at General University Hospital of Prague, said reintroducing measures, such as closing schools, is not sound.

"The authorities' response is irrational," he told ABC News. "We had the hardest lockdown ever in Europe, which completely destroyed private enterprises. This country lost its financial reserve ... which led to the almost complete relief of the measures during springtime. ... This country swings between extremes."

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš recently took the blame for lifting the restrictions over the summer. "Even I got carried away by the upcoming summer and the atmosphere in society. That was a mistake I do not want to repeat," the PM told a national audience on TV.

Prague residents "are not afraid of coronavirus, they are afraid of all those restrictions," local journalist Lenka Zlamalova told ABC News.

"We have recently a little bit more of mild course of the disease, so not so many people require treatment in ICU, ventilators, etc. ... [But] the rise is so steep that we may expect some trouble with the capacity, beds, ICUs and hospitals," Prymula said.

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