By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealanders will be able to go fishing, surfing, hunting and hiking this week for the first time in more than a month as the country begins to ease its way out of a strict lockdown that successfully slowed the spread of the coronavirus.
Around 400,000 people will return to work after the country shifts its alert level down a notch at midnight on Monday, but shops and restaurants will remain closed as several social restrictions remain in place.
New Zealand’s 5 million residents were subjected to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the pandemic, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closing offices, schools, bars and restaurants, including take away and delivery services, on March 26.
Beaches, waterfronts and playgrounds were also shut, effectively restricting people to their homes and short walks around their neighbourhood.
Many businesses, including parliament and the courts, began preparations over the weekend to restart operations this week while maintaining ongoing social distancing rules.
Eateries announced contactless delivery plans, retail stores showcased their latest collections online for home delivery and office towers posted social distancing rules in elevators and public areas.
Still, Ardern stressed that public gatherings remain banned and asked people to remain in their “bubble”.
Keen fishers will be permitted to cast a line from a wharf only as boating, yachting and other team sports or training remained barred. Hunting will be allowed on private land with special restrictions.
“We must make sure that we do not let the virus run away on us again and cause a new wave of cases and deaths,” Ardern said at a news conference on Monday. “To succeed we need to hunt down the last few cases of the virus.”
New Zealand has reported 1,122 cases of COVID-19, including 19 deaths, with the daily rate of new infections staying under 1% for the past two weeks.
Ben Kennings, general manager for industry group Surfing New Zealand, said people were itching to return to sea in a country where an average 60,000 boarders hit the waves weekly.
“We have done well to stay out of the water, but tomorrow there’s going to be a lot of people keen to go surfing,” Kennings said. “It is an individual sport that can be practiced with social distancing.”
Trust in governments in Australia and New Zealand has risen since the start of the pandemic, opinion polls show, with their idealogically opposite leaders hailed for their management of the crisis.
In Australia, where the rate of new daily cases has likewise slowed to below 1%, two states with small numbers of cases will ease restrictions this week. Western Australia is allowing indoor and outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people to resume from Monday, while Queensland will later this week allow picnics, retail shopping and drives of up to 50 kms (31 miles) from home. Other states in Australia’s federal political system, where COVID-19 cases have been higher, are not yet relaxing their rules.
Both countries have floated the idea of opening up travel between them, creating a coronavirus-free trans-tasman bubble although no decision has yet been made.
While Ardern has generally received public support, there has been growing criticism that similar results may have been achieved with less stringent lockdown measures, as in Australia.
Ardern now faces the challenge of restarting a $200 billion trade and tourism dependent economy from a standing start, while facing national elections in September.
Treasury has forecast gross domestic product to fall by as much as one-third and the jobless rate to hit 13%, even with NZ$20 billion of fiscal measures announced by Ardern and quantitative easing by the central bank.
Ardern stressed this week’s eased conditions were focused on opening up the economy, rather than people’s social lives.
“It can’t be return to pre COVID-19 life,” she said. “That day will come, but its not here yet.”