By Katrina Tanirau
The Cook Islands has been declared free of Covid-19, allowing churches to reopen this weekend.
Starting last night's address to the nation, Prime Minister Henry Puna thanked God for giving people courage and strength during the country's greatest threat in modern history.
He said hundreds of Covid-19 tests taken in the Cook Islands had come back negative, and the country can officially be confirmed as a Covid-free zone - one of the first nations in the world to do so.
This means some of the more restrictive Code Yellow measures introduced in late March to stop the virus, will now be eased.
All schools will reopen on Monday, domestic travel restrictions to and from the Pa Enua (outer islands) will be lifted, non-contact sports can resume, cafés and restaurants can open for normal business but with physical distancing in place, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol will be reviewed.
And for many church-goers, the reopening of church services this weekend will be music to their ears.
Religious Advisory Council president Eric Toleafoa said he was overjoyed. The Covid-19 threat had meant Cook Islands churches were operating in uncharted territory.
"Praise the Lord. This is wonderful news for our congregations, I know there will be mamas and papas jumping for joy."
His own Seventh Day Adventist Church will be first to resume full services on Saturday, and others will follow on Sunday.
Toleafoa said the Covid-19 crisis had been a shock to everyone, but he felt for those church members who have struggled with loneliness and anxiety.
"We are so used to worshipping together," he said. "We have had to work on doing things differently and look at avenues to reach those stuck at home, but not everyone is on social media.
"Everyone can put their worries behind them. I believe everything will now fall into place."
Seventh Day Adventist elder Vaopaaki Tearetoa and his wife Ngatereapii have two pews at home - they said they had not missed a Sabbath during church closures.
But as long as the directive had come from Te Marae Ora, the health ministry, they would be happy to return to church.
"I would hate for the work of the ministry and others to be undone," Vaopaaki Tearetoa said, cautiously.
Ngatereapii Tearetoa said she would stay at home for now and worship on Sabbath days with her children and grandchildren.
She used the guidance of her faith in every aspect of her life and said she prays for her brother, the Prime Minister "during these times."
This story was first published in the Cook Island News.