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Rules for Czech cross-border commuters during the coronavirus pandemic

The Czech Republic’s tagline during its EU presidency at the beginning of 2009 was: "Europe Without barriers". How the times have changed... The crisis triggered by the coronavirus resulted in the successful reactivation of expertise as to how to close the country’s borders shut, gained over the decades by senior officials at the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of course, this time, for a legally tenable reason – namely, to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.

Based on two government resolutions from 12 March 2020 (No. 198) and from 13 March 2020 (No. 203), entry into the Czech Republic became for all practical intents and purposes forbidden for foreigners, with the exception of foreigners with long-term or permanent residence (and a small number of narrowly defined other exemptions), though foreigners without a residency permit (that is, tourists) could still leave the country without restrictions. At the same time, though, a ban was issued under which Czech citizens (and foreigners with a residency permit for the Czech Republic) could no longer travel abroad.

However, banning foreigners with a residency permit from leaving the country was not tenable both under practical and legal considerations. Consequently, the Ministry of the Interior as early as on 26 March 2020 stipulated exemptions from the rules for travelling from and to the Czech Republic, giving rise to a very long and convoluted list of exemptions and partial exemptions. The rules for cross-border commuters were also reframed. To simplify somewhat, such workers were allowed to leave the Czech Republic for 21 days but upon their return were required to go into 14-day mandatory self-isolation (quarantine). There were no exemptions i.e. based on the presentation of a recent negative test for coronavirus for the purpose of shortening the quarantine period. There did exist exemptions, however, for certain fields of work – hospital workers, social workers, rescue workers, and (as of 14 April 2020) workers in the field of critical infrastructure. In addition, certain specific rules applied at the borders with Poland, Slovakia, German, and Austria, respectively.

Effective as of 14 April 2020, and valid until further notice, i.e., depending on whether or not the state of emergency (currently set to expire on 30 April) will be extended, and thus even before the first cycle for cross-border commuters ran its full course, the measures for all neighboring states were unified based upon resolution No. 387 of 6 April 2020.

Today, the principle of "two weeks abroad, two weeks quarantined (in the Czech Republic" still appears to apply to cross-border commuters without exemption, i.e., without the option to cut one’s quarantine short by presenting a recent negative test. An exemption applies to healthcare workers, social workers, rescue personnel within the integrated national rescue system, and – newly – in the area of critical infrastructure.

Detailed information on all this has been posted online e.g. by the German and Austrian embassies and by the German-Czech Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Prague, but the rules are complex and confounding. Among other things, the aforementioned websites provide the option to download a form which cross-border commuters must carry when leaving or entering the country. This is because the resolution mentioned earlier imposes a duty (which is explained in more detail in a summary by the Ministry of the Interior) that, starting as of 14 April 2020, only selected categories of individuals may cross the border, in intervals shorter than 14 days – i.e., the above-mentioned persons, who at the border must not only present confirmation of the fact that they are e.g. healthcare workers etc., but also a note issued by the embassy of the country to which they commute for work, i.e., by the Austrian Embassy in Prague if they travel to Austria, the Slovak or German embassy in Prague if they travel to Slovakia or Germany, etc. This is clearly incompatible with the instructions by the European Commission of March 2020 on how to treat cross-border commuters, according to which they should be accommodated as much as possible so as to facilitate their free movement to and from work.

All other cross-border commuters are still subject to the "two weeks abroad, two weeks quarantined at home", at least in the view of the Ministry of the Interior, even though this does not unambiguously follow from resolution No. 387.

According to this latest resolution, it ought to be possible to undertake one-day business trips, trips to visit family members, official errands, etc., that take the traveler abroad from the Czech Republic, provided that they return the same day, though again, only in exceptional cases.

We need to point out that all trips to the Czech Republic which originate in another country must be notified beforehand to the relevant Czech diplomatic representation, using an online form (see the link below). Upon arrival, the visitor must report to the competent medical authority or district disease control center. The procedure is different yet again for German travelers who merely cross the Czech Republic from a third country (e.g. going from Slovakia to Germany), and involves the German embassy. Other EU citizens must ask their embassies for a special declaration.

At the moment, there is little – indeed, next to nothing – left of the noble ideal of being able to travel without barriers within the EU, though that is true not only at the Czech borders, but also at the borders of Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, i.e., practically all internal EU borders in Central Europe. For as long as the latent threat of COVID-19 persists, this won’t change, even though the European Commission made it clear at the beginning of March 2020 that it considers the large-scale closing of internal borders to be an ineffective and disproportionate measure which, while principally anticipated by the Schengen Borders Code, won’t help curb the propagation of the pandemic in a situation in which the virus is already spreading on both sides of the border. However, for the time being, the European Commission does not seem to intend to open proceedings on grounds of a violation of the Treaty against the member states which implemented such border closings.

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