Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Over 200 people were in line before opening at Kmart Henderson. Video / Jed Bradley
People in Auckland are already lining up outside at least one major shopping mall – nearly 24 hours before its stores are due to open.
A long queue is snaking down the side of the Sylvia Park shopping complex in Mt Wellington this morning, despite the mall not due to open until 9am tomorrow.
The country’s largest city will officially move to alert level 3 step 2 just before midnight – signalling the end of a strict lockdown that has shut up shops around the city since mid-August.
Video footage of the line outside Sylvia Park shows dozens of people camped out on chairs and some with blankets.
A witness said up to 70 people camped there overnight and were planning to do the same again tonight.
It is understood they are there specifically for the opening of a new store, JD Sports Sylvia Park, which is advertising that the first 150 customers through its doors will get a gift pack worth $150.
A member of the public near the mall told the Herald he was concerned about the mass Covid breach that was happening and had contacted mall management and the sports store itself.
He said at 10am, there were about 60 people in line waiting for the store to open.
“With no social distancing in place, crowds of people and many without masks.
“A crowd of this size is not even permitted tomorrow after the change in alert levels.”
Linda Trainer, of GM Asset Management, said an orderly queue had begun to form outside JD Sports ahead of its opening scheduled at 12.01am tomorrow.
“We’re focused on ensuring the safety of our customers and we are working with those in the line to ensure they’re socially distancing and wearing masks.”
Extra security has also been brought in to manage the queue and will be making face masks available for anyone who needs one.
Retailers around the city already have Christmas decorations up in anticipation of tomorrow’s big day.
Auckland’s Glenfield Mall owner Dallas Pendergrast told TVNZ’s Breakfast show that the mall was already decked out in tinsel.
“We have all our Christmas decorations – Christmas has arrived at Glenfield Mall,” she smiled.
“We’re going to be playing carols, we’ve got our decorations out and we’ve got a Santa.
“We’ve been debating how we can still have a Santa with social distancing, but we managed to come up with the idea of finding a life-size Santa and he’ll be sitting in the chair looking wonderful.”
The relaxation of the alert level restrictions also means gatherings of up to 25 people from any household will be allowed to meet – but outdoors still.
It comes after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed the big move yesterday afternoon – the same day the Ministry of Health reported 190 community cases and the deaths of two people.
Health Minister Andrew Little told Breakfast that officials did consider the rising community cases before making yesterday’s decision for Auckland to move to alert level 3 step 2.
But that, ultimately, they were comfortable with the decision.
“Every effort” was being made to boost vaccination rates in Northland, he said, where the number of people vaccinated is still behind compared to other parts of the country.
Little said going forward, Covid-19 would continue to spread – but its impact on people’s health would be heavily influenced by whether or not they were vaccinated against the virus.
He acknowledged that officials would be keeping a closer eye now on people turning up with Covid to hospital and the number of people being hospitalised after contracting the virus.
Speaking about vulnerable communities – Māori and Pasifika – he said vaccination rates among Pacific Island communities were now strong, but more work was needed to boost Māori vaccination rates.
Why cafes and eateries can’t open yet
On cafes and other eateries not being able to open tomorrow – alongside retail stores – Little said the fact people needed to remove their masks while inside a cafe, for example, meant there was a risk of transmission still.
“To enjoy the benefits of a cafe, you have to take your mask off.
“That’s where the risk of aerosol transmission is the highest, so that’s why we’re being very cautious with those environments you can’t put a mask on.”
He said places like cafes tended to be very confined spaces – another reason to keep them closed still, at this point.
Little said they expected vaccination rates to look “pretty darn good” by the end of this month.
On double-vaccinated Kiwis overseas trying to get back to New Zealand, Little stressed that there is still a risk that they could bring the virus with them.
“We’re not at the point where we think it’s safe to abandon MIQ altogether.”
He told Three’s AM Show there would be a hard push over the next few weeks especially in areas such as Northland and Tairāwhiti to get to that 90 per cent so they could all start moving down together.
November 29 would be the date when Cabinet would “check-in” to see how the vaccination rates were tracking and when it could start moving down those levels. “It is a check-in and we need to make sure that all the conditions are right for us.”
Little said the expectation was that “no one would start on green”.
“We are taking a very cautious approach.” New Zealand didn’t want to be in a position where it was “lurching in and out” of different levels of the traffic light system.
He said there had been a “few hiccups” as they got people to isolate at home. Auckland was leading the way and they needed to make sure other regions were for that too.
Even though the case numbers have gone up to about 1000 in the past week, the number of people in ICU hadn’t really changed, he said. The reason for getting the vaccination numbers up was while people could still catch it, they didn’t get as sick.
There would be as many beds available as needed, but it would put restrictions on the rest of the health system. He could not put a number on how many cases would be unsustainable. At the moment the health system could cope, Little said.
Schools may open again before Christmas
The Health Minister also appeared to hint that younger children and students would be heading back to school before the end of the year.
He told Newstalk ZB that officials would watch what happened with the outbreak in the next couple of weeks as retail re-opened and kids started returning to school.
“We think that’s low risk, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.”
He said the Government had always said it would manage the return for kids and that would be happening within this month.
Junior high school students – years 9 and 10 – would be going back to prepare for exams and there would be a managed return for others over the next few weeks, he said.
There were a lot of parents who wanted their kids to have some contact with teachers and schools before the end of the year so there would be a managed return on that.”
Auckland border should be treated like an international one – experts
Not everyone was as optimistic, however.
Māori health leader Dr Rawiri Jansen told Breakfast he was uncomfortable with Northland moving into alert level 2 again.
Easing restrictions will be associated with increased cases, he said. Right now, Māori communities are already heavily affected in this outbreak, he said, and that he was very worried for Māori communities as alert levels continue to be relaxed.
The fact that vaccination rates in the Māori community are still low is also worrying, Jansen said, and they just needed more time.
Jansen said some Māori communities in Northland are now preparing for Aucklanders heading into their region over the Christmas period.
“I think rural provincial New Zealand will be deeply worried about this idea that the Auckland diaspora just get to have their summer holidays out there.”
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said he was “much more concerned” about any moves to open schools before Christmas.
Officials also need to look at MIQ and freeing up some of those beds and rooms for people in Auckland who have Covid-19.
“We need to free up those beds for people in Auckland who really need to be cared for in a facility rather than left, for example, having to stay in cars or crowded multi-generational households.”
Baker said officials should be treating Auckland’s border like an international one and that unvaccinated people should not be travelling outside of the city.
“You can’t have people with this virus taking it all over the country.
“We’ve got to look at the border around Auckland or the boundary the same way.”
It was critical that we kept a boundary around Auckland so that the virus is contained to the city and not being spread to other parts of New Zealand – particularly to places where vaccination rates remain low, Baker said.