By Jason Hovet and Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic reported more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day for the first time on Thursday and tightened preventive measures after a surge in infections that is among the fastest in Europe.
The Health Ministry ordered bars and restaurants across the country to close between midnight and 6:00 a.m. (0400 GMT) starting on Friday evening. In schools, older students would have to wear face masks in classrooms as well as hallways.
Health Minister Adam Vojtech said the tightening was needed after the rate of reproduction or 'R' number, which represents the average number of people to whom one infected person will pass the virus, rose to 1.6, threatening exponential growth.
He urged people to reconsider holding large events that currently fit under current crowd limits, but did not ban them. Vojtech said that although no blanket lockdown was planned, more tightening could follow as early as next week.
The government is aiming to avoid nationwide shutdowns imposed at the start of the outbreak in March, which led to a record 11% year-on-year economic contraction in the second quarter.
The country of 10.7 million has reported 16,416 COVID-19 cases alone this month- a figure not reached until the end of July during the first wave.
A record 2,139 cases were registered on Wednesday, bringing the total tally to 41,032, the Health Ministry said on Thursday.
When adjusted for population size, the Czech spike in cases is the third fastest in the European Union over the past two weeks, just behind Spain and France, according to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data.
Czech health officials said case numbers could reach 70,000 this month under a pessimistic scenario.
The government already renewed mask requirement in most indoor places and banned stand-up indoor events from Friday evening to limit customers in bars, restaurants or other venues to seating capacities.
The country has seen a lower death toll than western neighbours, with 482 deaths reported in connection with the virus, but deaths have increased by 13% this month and hospitalisations are approaching peak April levels. As of Sept. 15, there were 388 patients, up from 172 on Sept. 1.
** For an interactive graphic on new coronavirus cases in the Czech Republic: https://tmsnrt.rs/2RC0Y70
(Reporting by Jason Hovet and Robert Muller; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Peter Graff and Tomasz Janowski)