It is now compulsory for Auckland commuters to wear masks on public transport in a bid to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19 in the community.
Thursday, November 19 marks the official return of the mandate, which was implemented during the city's second stint at alert level 2. The regulation was not continued when Auckland transitioned into alert level 1 on October 8, despite experts such as epidemiologist Michael Baker calling on the Government to keep the extra precaution in play. However, health officials have continued to encourage commuters to cover their faces on buses, trains and ferries.
Although the mandate does not apply to public transport outside of Auckland's regional boundaries, all New Zealanders are required to mask up when travelling on domestic flights. Drivers of taxis or rideshare services, such as Uber, must also wear a mask in the Super City - however, it's not compulsory for their passengers to do so.
Auckland Police will be stationed at major transport hubs across the city on Thursday. While authorities have the power to enforce the mandate by issuing a fine or warning, officers are opting for an education-based approach initially to ensure commuters are aware of the regulations, with a supply of masks on-hand for those who have forgotten. Auckland Transport (AT) staff will also be monitoring passengers.
An AT worker told The AM Show that the most recent train - as of 7am - was boarded by 59 commuters, all of whom were wearing a mask. Of the hundreds of commuters arriving at Britomart Station in central Auckland, just 24 were counted without a face covering.
As of 7:30am, Newshub understands just 15 people were spotted not wearing a mask out of the thousands of commuters catching a train from Britomart Station since 6am.
As of 8:30am, an AT staffer said 86 commuters had been counted leaving the station without a face covering, but police said that for the most part, those individuals weren't aware of the regulations.
"It's off to a really good start," The AM Show reporter Lauren Hendricksen said from Britomart Station.
However, commuters should not be removing their masks as soon as they get off the train, with authorities reminding passengers to wear them until they leave the station.
The re-introduction of mandatory mask use on public transport in Auckland - and on domestic flights - has some advocates for the public health measure putting pressure on the Government to implement it elsewhere.
Jon Reeves from the Public Transport Users Association told Newshub that the mandate may also prove useful in the capital.
"COVID can pop up anywhere at the end of the day. Yes, predominantly it's been in Auckland, but it could pop up in Wellington or Christchurch," he said.
"Especially Wellington has a high usage of public transport. It may be good to roll it out there as well."
The move to make masks mandatory for a second time followed the Super City's latest coronavirus scare. COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins signalled the changes last week after an Auckland University of Technology (AUT) student tested positive for the virus. The woman, known as Case D, has been linked to a cluster of other cases in the community, dubbed the November quarantine cluster.
Last week, genome sequencing found the woman's infection was a match with that of Case A, a New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) worker who contracted the illness while working at Auckland's quarantine facility. However, it remains unclear how the student caught COVID-19 from Case A.
It was revealed that the student had continued working at her Auckland CBD retail job at A-Z Collections while she was symptomatic, sparking fears that the virus may have spread throughout the city.
Although Hipkins confirmed Auckland would remain at level 1, he said he would seek to mandate masks on public transport in Auckland and regional flights as a precaution.
"Adding mask-wearing to the toolbox of measures against the virus is a sensible precaution and the time is right to make the move," Hipkins said.
"We've determined that now is the right time to make mask use mandatory in these situations. It will provide another line of defence, is a low-cost and practical option and presents a minor inconvenience by comparison."