Coronavirus: New Zealand will shift to COVID-19 alert level 2 on Thursday, May 14

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that New Zealand will shift into COVID-19 alert level 2 on Thursday, May 14, but bars and nightclubs will have to wait an extra week. 

On Thursday, cinemas, retail stores, playgrounds, gyms, shopping malls and community venues can reopen as long as physical distancing and strict hygiene measures are practised. 

But schools will not open until Monday, while bars primarily serving alcohol will only be allowed to open on Thursday, May 21. They will only be able to invite customers in to be seated so that contact tracing can be done if needed. 

The Prime Minister expained that restaurants will be able to open on Thursday, but it's venues "with the primary purpose" of providing alcohol to consume - such as nighclubs - that will have to wait an extra week. 

Jacinda Ardern said bars are the most risky businesses with regard to the spread of COVID-19. She highlighted how in South Korea bars were allowed to open, but then had to close straight away following an outbreak. 

"We have left bars till last because they do pose the most risk, as we can see from South Korea that recently opened up there bars, only to close them again after one person created an outbreak of 40 people and 1500 tests."

Ardern also called for gatherings to be kept small during level 2. She said bars and restaurants, when they open, will not be able to take group bookings larger than 10 people. 

"Parties, big social events or anything designed to be for mixing and mingling won't be allowed to happen for groups larger than 10 people," she said. 

"Gatherings at home need to be capped at 10. Church and religious events, weddings, funerals, stag dos – all must be limited to 10 for now.

"And if you're wanting to head to a restaurant, or a bar, they won't be able to take group bookings larger than 10. This, alongside social distancing, is our insurance policy."

She said Cabinet settled on 10 because if something goes wrong with a group of 10, that's "much easier to contain, much easier to contact trace, and much less likely that if something goes wrong that the whole country will have to experience more restrictions".

But the Prime Minister said the Government is being "pragmatic" and will not discriminate against families of more than 10 people. 

"If you have a family that is larger than 10, you don't need to throw anyone out of the house. We are being pragmatic. But we don't want you having a big gathering yet."

Opposition leader Simon Bridges said "on the whole" the decision to move to level 2 is "a good thing", but he said there might be confusion about what defines a bar or restaurant. He suggested bars may try to pass off as restaurants just to be able to open again. 

Food and beverage services has fallen by about 95 percent - down $814 million - in just one month, according to new Stats NZ data. Retail card spending across the whole country fell by more than $2.6 billion, down 47 percent. 

Cabinet will review the decision in two weeks' time, and Ardern said if the number of cases in New Zealand is still looking promising, gatherings of larger sizes will be permitted. 

"I know that many New Zealanders are looking forward to catching up with friends and family, and from this Thursday you can. But for now it needs to be small. This is a transition out of bubbles, where you can see people you haven't seen in a while; you just can't do it all at once." 

It comes as three new cases of the coronavirus were reported on Monday by the Ministry of Health. New cases have been reported each day since the outbreak except for two consecutive days last week. 

"Case numbers remain low, and in the last week we have had two days in a row of no cases," Ardern said, highlighting how by the end of alert level 4, New Zealand's R value - the number of people each case goes on to infect - was just 0.4. 

Under level 3 it remained low, she said, and experts say that if the R value stays below 1, New Zealand will eventually achieve its goal of elimination. 

"None of that has been through luck, but hard work," Ardern said. "While we have been battling the virus, we have also built up our health system specifically to act as a defence."

The Prime Minister began by thanking all the sacrifices Kiwis have made throughout the COVID-19 crisis - from missed birthdays to anniversaries - and through all that, said she "Kiwis from all walks of life were resolute and determined". 

She said 3.5 percent of the population has so far been tested for the virus, and a lot of work has gone into building up contact tracing, with 185 cases able to be traced per day.

But Ardern cautioned Kiwis to be vigilant and to not get complacent with the easing restrictions. She said anyone who feels unwell should stay home and contact health authorities.

"We all know there is more to do. We may have won a few battles, but we have not won the war."

Alert level 2 reminder:

  • businesses can restart for staff and customers
  • 'bubbles' can cease
  • domestic travel recommences 
  • schools and early learning centres can open
  • gatherings both indoors and outdoors are limited to 100 people
  • public places reopen
  • sport and recreation comes back, including professional sports competitions
  • home gatherings must be kept small
  • hospitality must follow the three S's: seated, separated, single-server