Masks mandatory in shops but not schools or nightclubs: COVID-19 orange rules dubbed 'nonsensical'

With the shift to the orange traffic light, masks will be mandatory in shops and libraries but not schools or nightclubs - rules dubbed "nonsensical" by the retail sector. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced on Wednesday that at 11:59pm New Zealand will shift to the less restrictive orange level of the COVID Protection Framework, also known as the traffic light system. 

The move to orange ends indoor capacity limits as well as the requirement for hospitality guests to be seated and separated. But face masks will remain in place for retail, public transport, flights and public venues like libraries. 

It means people inside crowded nightclubs and students packed into classrooms will not need to wear face coverings but shoppers at supermarkets must wear a mask. 

"It is absurd that the Government is removing mask requirements in the hospitality and education sectors, but keeping them for retail," Greg Harford, Retail NZ's chief executive, said on Wednesday. 

"It's just nonsensical to suggest that there is greater risk in socially-distanced retail settings than in crowded nightclubs, school classrooms or cafés."

Harford's comments came as the latest MYOB survey of small businesses found that more than two-thirds expect economic decline in the coming year and 60 percent have expressed dissatisfaction with Labour.

"Retail NZ is asking the Government to take some practical steps to create settings that improve business and consumer confidence," Harford said. 

"This includes resolution of the issues around masks, and setting a date for a move to the green traffic light setting, to create certainty and help improve consumer confidence."

The next traffic light review is in mid-May. 

It did not help that Hipkins was unsure about his own mask rules. 

"We continue to encourage the use of face masks when people are out and about in public including on flights, retail, public transport and public facilities like libraries," he said at the 1pm press conference. 

But that was wrong. 

"Sorry, my script was a little unclear about that," Hipkins said, as he quickly sought clarification from officials about the mask rules at orange. 

"I was incorrect on retail, my apologies... You still need to wear a mask in a retail setting."

Masks are also still mandatory on public transport, flights, public venues like libraries and museums, as well as courts, local government facilities, and healthcare settings. 

Hipkins justified allowing nightclubbers to go maskless but requiring face coverings for supermarket shoppers. 

"There are going to be a lot more people in the supermarket on a weekly basis than there will be out and about pashing on a dancefloor."

The Greens want masks to remain mandatory in schools. 

"Now is not the time to ease restrictions even further than they have been already," said Green MP Teanau Tuiono, spokesperson for COVID-19. 

"Experts have called for mask rules to remain for schools, with a significant number of children yet to be vaccinated and the winter flu season approaching. The Government should listen."

Hipkins said it's too hard to enforce masks in schools. 

"It is very challenging for schools. It has proven to be one of the most challenging COVID-19 requirements."

It's been three weeks since the Government changed up the traffic light system. In that time, outdoor gathering limits were removed and indoor gatherings were increased to 200. 

COVID-19 vaccine passes are no longer mandatory and vaccine mandates have been removed for most workforces, except for healthcare, Corrections and border workers. 

"Despite this significant relaxation in the settings, we've continued to see positive improvements in the overall trajectory of our COVID-19 Omicron outbreak," Hipkins said. 

"Since the last review of the settings 10 days ago, the seven-day rolling average of cases has declined by 3930 and case numbers now sit at under 10,000 cases a day for the first time since 24 February."

Hospitalisations are also trending down with over 100 fewer people on average in hospitals across the country now than when the Government last reviewed the settings, Hipkins said. 

"For the first time since late February, all three Auckland hospitals are reporting fewer than 100 patients with COVID-19 currently in hospital. The extra good news is that planned care delivery is increasing day by day.

"The decline in cases and hospitalisations, along with the arrival of new antiviral medications, means the number of deaths is also declining from a seven-day rolling average of 20 a week to 13 now.

"Right across the country the evidence is clear that we're now coming off the peak and we're now well on the other side of it. 

"In some places the cases are falling off quickly and others are experiencing a slightly slower decline. But the overall picture is a very positive one."