In New Zealand, shopping, parties and big hugs mark start of ‘COVID-free’ life

New Zealanders hugged and kissed, shopped, and planned parties on Tuesday as the country took off all coronavirus restrictions for the first time in more than three months, while much of the rest of the world is still grappling with the pandemic.

The South Pacific nation of 5 million declared on Monday that it was free of the coronavirus, becoming one of the first countries in the world to return to pre-pandemic normality.

This meant no more limits on people in cafes, malls, stadiums, night clubs or public and private gatherings. Life, for the most part, is back to normal.

“I’m just walking in the city today and I’ve seen more people than I have seen in months,” said Steve Price of the capital, Wellington.

“People are shopping, dining and just hanging about holding hands… it’s so lovely to see,” he said.

New Zealanders are emerging from the pandemic while big economies such as Brazil, Britain, India and the United States continue to struggle with the virus.

Its largely due months of restrictions, including about seven weeks of a strict lockdown in which most businesses were shut and everyone except essential workers had to stay home.

Katy Ellis of Mojo Coffee in Wellington said her business has removed all the social distancing measures.

“That’s what allows us to have a lot more people in the café, it’s really helped generate that absolute buzz and that real feeling of more normality, really,” Ellis said.

Offices were open again, and public buses and trains were packed with commuters.

Many offices and businesses still have hand sanitiser dispensers at the entrance, although it is no longer mandatory to use them.

Pubs are opening their dance floors and are expecting many to turn up on Friday.

“I just realised….I can hug someone today,” said one user on Twitter as #COVIDFreeNZ was trending.

New Zealand will also be one of the first countries to allow people to watch professional sports at stadiums with no limits on crowd numbers. Thousands are expected to pack into a stadiums for the opening weekend of the domestic rugby union competition.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has won praise for her leadership during the pandemic, said on Monday that she did a “little dance” to celebrate zero active cases in the country.

Her health chief, Ashley Bloomfield, who spearheaded the strict lockdown, said it was time to live a little.

“It’s about buying local, getting out and enjoying everything this country has to offer,” he told reporters in Wellington.

But he ended his comments with a warning.

“There is still a pandemic raging beyond our shores and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep the gains we have made,” he said.

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