WELLINGTON: New Zealanders satisfied their cravings for hamburgers and coffee as a five-week lockdown eased on Tuesday, as hopes swelled that the country’s coronavirus outbreak was under control.
Lines of cars snaked along drive-thru lanes at McDonald’s outlets around the country, with the fast-food chain reporting 50 vehicles queued before dawn in the North Island town of Hastings.
Coffee lovers also indulged in barista-brewed beverages after more than a month of strict quarantine measures that banned any form of takeaway or restaurant food.
“It’s thrilling and exciting after a long haul,” said Roop Kaur, owner of the Mulberry Tree cafe in central Wellington, as she hurried to fill a brisk trade in online orders from office workers.
“I’m looking forward to some good business because hospitality has suffered a lot.”
Aside from allowing takeaways, the move from a maximum Level Four alert — where only essential services operated — means Kiwis can now fish, hunt, surf, swim and play golf.
Retail business can also open, provided transactions do not involve physical contact, while gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed for events such as weddings or funerals.
Schools will also reopen from Wednesday, but authorities said attendances were expected to remain extremely low with the vast majority of students in the South Pacific nation staying at home.
The government predicted 400,000 people in the nation of five million would return to work under the more relaxed regime.
However, the capital Wellington was slow to flicker back to life, with rush hour traffic in the normally bustling Willis Street so quiet that a lone skateboarder had two lanes to himself.
Downtown resident Cheryl Robertson, taking her regular walk with guide dog Pebbles, said it felt like a quiet weekend morning in the city, not a regular working day.
Robertson, who planned to celebrate with a curry from her favourite Indian restaurant, praised the way “small” and uncrowded New Zealand reacted to the crisis.
“We see the difference in other countries and I don’t envy them, that’s for sure,” she said. “We pull together.”
Nearby, construction crews gathered in fluorescent vests and face masks to resume work on projects mothballed because of the virus, and double-decker buses again rumbled along city streets, most of them empty.
The noise from even such modest traffic was too much for local Aaron White, who complained of “sensory overload” after so long in lockdown.
While the New Zealand Herald trumpeted the downgrade to Level Three restrictions with the headline “Threedom”, he was cautious about prematurely declaring victory.
“I’m nervous. I feel this is the time when we should be most vigilant,” he told AFP.
“I get the sense over the weekend that (people think) we’ve done it and we can go back to normal. I suspect that’s not the case.”
Health authorities on Tuesday reported New Zealand had only two new cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total to 1,124 with 19 deaths.
Despite the looser rules, the government has emphasised that social distancing must be maintained and illuminated roadside signs still flash the message “Stay Home, Save Lives”.
Level Three restrictions will be in place for at least two weeks, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying they would only be downgraded again if circumstances were right.
For coffee-shop owner Kaur, the restoration of some freedoms, however limited, was cause for celebration.
“It (lockdown) was traumatising for me. It was being lazy, sitting on the couch with nothing much to do,” she said.
“It’s really great to come back and start with more energy and enthusiasm.”