New Zealand removes most remaining COVID rules as cases wane
New Zealand removed most of its remaining COVID-19 restrictions Monday as the government signaled a return to normalcy for the first time since the pandemic began.
People will no longer be required to wear masks in supermarkets and stores or on buses and planes. The last remaining vaccine mandates — for healthcare workers — will end. And tourists will no longer need to be vaccinated in order to visit the country.
The government announced it was ditching its so-called COVID traffic light framework altogether and leaving in place just two main restrictions: Those who test positive for the coronavirus are required to isolate for seven days, and people must wear masks when visiting healthcare facilities like hospitals and senior care homes.
The changes come as an Omicron variant outbreak wanes and the Southern Hemisphere winter ends. Case numbers in New Zealand are at their lowest point since February.
“The changes we’ve made today are significant. They mark a milestone in our response,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “This is a time when finally — rather than feeling COVID dictates what happens to us, our lives and our futures — we take control back.”
She said the changes will help drive business activity, which is vital to the nation’s economic recovery.
“This will be the first summer in three years when there won’t be the question of ‘What if?’” Ardern said.
New Zealand’s government puts the entire nation in strict lockdown after finding a single case of community spread of the coronavirus.
The end of government restrictions won’t stop individual workplaces or stores from imposing their own rules, although most people expect mask use to plummet as soon as the government restrictions end just before midnight Monday.
The moves were welcomed by business leaders.
Kirk Hope, chief executive of the business advocacy organization BusinessNZ, said it was encouraging to see the government trusting individual businesses again.
“No two sites are the same and each business can decide what works for their own environment when it comes to minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
New Zealand’s government has acknowledged what most other countries did long ago: It cannot completely and permanently rid itself of the coronavirus.
New Zealand enjoyed initial success in fighting the pandemic, managing to eliminate the virus entirely after closing its borders and carefully contact-tracing cases. But its approach changed as more transmissible variants proved impossible to stamp out.
As late as March, the country of 5 million had reported had only 65 COVID-19 deaths. Since an Omicron wave took hold, that number has risen to nearly 2,000. But that still remains low compared with the death rates in many other countries.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.