New Zealand lifts most remaining COVID rules as cases decline

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand lifted most of its remaining COVID-19 restrictions on Monday as the government signaled a return to normalcy for the first time since the pandemic began.

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People will no longer be required to wear masks in supermarkets, shops, buses or planes. The last remaining vaccine mandates—for health care workers—will end. And tourists will no longer need to be vaccinated to visit the country.

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The government has announced that it is abandoning the so-called traffic light framework for COVID entirely and leaving only two main restrictions in place – that those who test positive for the virus self-isolate for seven days and that people wear masks when visiting healthcare facilities such as hospitals and homes for elderly people.

The changes come as the omicron variant epidemic subsides and the Southern Hemisphere winter ends. The number of cases in New Zealand is the lowest since February.

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“The changes we made today are significant. They mark a milestone in our response,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “It’s a time when finally — instead of feeling like COVID is dictating what happens to us, our lives and our future — we take back control.”

She said the changes would help spur business activity that is vital to the nation’s economic recovery.

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“This will be the first summer in three years where there will be no ‘What if?'” Ardern said.

The end of government restrictions will not stop individual workplaces or shops from imposing their own rules, although most people expect mask use to drop sharply once government restrictions end just before midnight on Monday.

The moves were welcomed by business leaders.

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BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope said it was encouraging to see the government putting its trust back into individual businesses.

“No two sites are the same, and each business can decide what works for its own environment when it comes to minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

New Zealand enjoyed initial success in combating the pandemic, managing to completely eliminate the virus after closing its borders and carefully tracing cases. But his approach changed as more portable options proved impossible to remove.

By March, the country of 5 million had reported just 65 deaths from the virus. Since the omicron wave took over, that number has risen to nearly 2,000. But that still remains low compared to death rates in many other countries.

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