COVID-19 alert level 2: How life could change when we enter 'a significant milestone'

Shifting to alert level 2 would be "a significant milestone", the tourism industry says, as most businesses will be able to reopen and domestic travel restrictions are expected to ease, but the Government is yet to confirm anything. 

Recreation Aotearoa's Sam Newton is optimistic about the potential shift. He says the organisation believes that, with safe travel protocols, it "should be possible for our members to return to the outdoors". 

But alert level 2 won't be business as usual - as far as we know. Despite no new cases of COVID-19 reported in New Zealand on Monday, Kiwis are urged to remain cautious and not take the gains for granted.  

A ban on gatherings of up to 100 people indoors and 500 outdoors will remain at level 2, and employees will still be asked to work from home - if this is not possible, they could return but be asked to stagger meal breaks and be physically-distanced. 

Will you be able to dine in?

It's likely we'll go back to that recording system at dine-in venues. You might recall when alert level 2 was introduced briefly back in March and you had to write down your name and contact details at restaurants and bars. 

The official alert level 2 guidelines state: "All gatherings must record attendees to ensure contact tracing may be conducted if necessary."

Weddings and funerals?

Alert level 2 would bring huge relief for all the people who have postponed weddings and funerals during the strict alert level 3 and 4 rules. Even at level 3, only gatherings of up to 10 are allowed at weddings, funerals and tangihanga. 

Can you get a haircut?

We don't know. Alert level 3 has restricted businesses from physically trading with customers. But that rule will no longer apply at alert level 2, so according to the current guidelines you could finally go and get that haircut - unless the Government says otherwise. 

Community venues?

Public venues will finally open, as long as they comply with the mass gathering conditions, so you'll be able to visit your local community pool or the museum. 

Will schools be back?

Yes, all educational facilities will open - but any facility connected to a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 will have to close for 72 hours to allow contact tracing. Some school students have returned during alert level 3, but only those whose parents need to go to work. 

Can you play sports?

Sport and recreation will make a comeback under alert level 2, with activities allowed if conditions on gatherings are met and physical distancing is followed. The Warriors have already been given special permission to travel to Australia to compete in the NRL. 

What about medical procedures?

Shifting to alert level 2 will bring relief to those who have had medical procedures put on hold during the COVID-19 crisis. Health and disability care services will "operate normally as far as possible" when that time comes. 

So, when will that time come? 

The Prime Minister's Cabinet meets on Mondays and it's understood the alert level 2 rules will be a topic of discussion amongst ministers, and the details are expected to be laid out sometime this week. 

That will give New Zealanders time to digest the guidelines as there's a possibility the nation will shift into alert level 2 later next week.

We know that, because when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand was shifting to alert level 3, she also noted that it would be reviewed by Cabinet in two weeks' time, which is next Monday, May 11. 

Pressure to move into level 2

Pressure is mounting on the Government to move us into alert level 2 as soon as possible, because the economic impact of keeping huge industries like retail shut for more than a month could be catastrophic. 

As ASB Bank noted on Friday, business confidence "plunged to unprecedented lows" in April, and the bank now expects a 7 percent contraction in the economy this year, with unemployment expected to reach 9.3 percent - higher than during the global financial crisis.

The Ministry of Social Development says a further 6000 people went on the benefit last week, bringing the total increase of Kiwis receiving it to around 28,000 in just four weeks. 

Opposition leader Simon Bridges believes that warrants an immediate drop to alert level 2. 

"The longer this goes on, the more jobs will be lost. New Zealanders have done a great job staying home and self-isolating. Now it's time to let people get back to work."

But the Prime Minister is urging caution because she doesn't want the country "yo-yoing" between alert levels as we've seen in countries like Italy. She told The AM Show there's no chance we're coming out early. 

"We wouldn't do it earlier. Because that gives us one cycle of transmission and good data can tell us a lot, so we wouldn't cut that short."

Where can we travel?

The Prime Minister's reluctance to review the alert levels early comes as optimism spreads throughout the tourism industry at the prospect of a return to domestic travel under alert level 2. 

But there is no certainty yet as to whether that will be the case. At this stage, domestic travel will be allowed at alert level 2.

But Finance Minister Grant Robertson indicated on Friday that may change, and inter-regional travel might not be allowed. 

"We do know that travel has been an issue in terms of transmission of the virus, and so we have to make decisions that uphold our public health guidelines. But we absolutely understand that for domestic tourism, particularly, that's the lifeline for the tourism industry."

There is also mixed messaging coming from the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister about the prospect of a trans-Tasman travel 'bubble' with Australia. 

Winston Peters said last week because New Zealand and Australia are "beating the crap" out of coronavirus, restrictions on trans-Tasman travel could be lifted as soon as alert level 2. 

But the official Government advice says otherwise: At alert level 2 people should avoid non-essential travel, and that's just within New Zealand. 

The Prime Minister said the idea is a "long-term goal". 

The border is currently only open to returning Kiwis and they are all required to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Government-organised hotels.

What happens next? 

The Government's decision to shift alert levels comes down to how much of a threat the virus poses to communities and how likely it is that it has been contained, and this will be based on the most recent data on cases and clusters. 

The number of new cases has been consistently dropping, except for the occasional spike like on Saturday when six new cases were announced. Just two new cases were confirmed on Sunday, bringing the total number of confirmed and probable cases to 1487. 

However, as many as 1266 are now reported as recovered in New Zealand, meaning the number of people who have recovered is catching up to the number of people who've caught the virus. 

But there have been 16 "significant clusters" of the virus in New Zealand. Three of these clusters are now considered closed as there is no longer transmission of the virus associated with them. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is urging Kiwis to remain vigilant as police were forced to shut down hundreds of parties over the weekend. 

"It's been concerning to see some behaviours continue into the weekend and ultimately, this could slow a move to level 2. Continuing to be vigilant will be key in supporting a move down to level 2 as soon as possible."

Looking further ahead, there is still one more alert level Kiwis face before things return to normal. 

The Government will bring the country into alert level 1 when the virus is considered to be contained here, even if there is still evidence that it is not under control overseas. 

By that time, there will be no restrictions on gatherings or domestic transport, while schools and workplaces will be open, but border entry restrictions will remain to minimise the risk of importing the virus.

The coronavirus has so far taken the lives of more than 248,000 people worldwide and infected at least 3.5 million. The number of people who've reportedly recovered from the virus is more than 1.1 million.