13 Sep 2022

Covid-19 rules mostly scrapped - will masks be missed?

10:13 am on 13 September 2022

The Covid-19 traffic light system is gone and people can hop on a bus, go shopping or visit the library without wearing a mask.

A pedestrian wearing a mask during level 2, Wellington 15 February 2021

Masks no longer have to be worn on buses now the traffic light system has been scrapped. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

From midnight on Monday, masks are required only in health and aged care settings, while all government vaccine mandates end in two weeks.

Mask wearing has been part of life for a long time, first made mandatory on public transport in August 2020 under the alert level system and ramped up under the traffic light system and the arrival of Omicron.

So how are Aucklanders feeling about the change? Several spoken to by RNZ said it was "about time" and welcomed "getting back to normal". "To be honest we're all sick of wearing masks. I wear glasses so I can't see anything," one said, while another thought people feeling unwell should still wear face coverings.

Supermarket workers have come in for abuse from customers who didn't like wearing masks, and Ben Peterson from First Union said while that tension was now gone, there was a downside.

"It does mean that there'll be more retail workers who'll be more likely to get sick and that's going to be frustrating for a lot of people.

"If more people are getting sick there'll be more people away from store, which will mean that the staffing issues that we're seeing across the industry are likely to compound."

The hospitality industry is delighted masks are gone, but Chloe Ann-King from the Raise the Bar Hospitality Union shrugged it off.

"It's not going to make much difference - there was very little enforcement of hospo workers wearing masks anyway," she said.

Workers had felt expendable when mask mandates were earlier scrapped for hospitality patrons but not retail or supermarket customers, she said.

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Hartford told Morning Report it was "tremendously good news" mask mandates would be removed from retail because "lots of customers have been not wanting to comply".

"There's no longer that threat of a, sirens from the police or b, aggression from customers," Hartford said.

"Generally speaking, most people are not telling me that they think masks are keeping them safe," he said.

"In fact, if you look at the numbers and case numbers across the ditch in Australia, where they've had no masks in retail for six months now, the case numbers are pretty similar to what they are in New Zealand so you really do have to question whether it's been serving any real purpose."

It did not make sense that people could go to a crowded bar without masks but be expected to wear one in shops, even if they were alone, he said.

"There's clearly still a risk of Covid spreading through the community, masks are clearly a way we can help manage that, but I think the question is does it need to be mandatory? And the government's now come down to people to make their own choices which is a good thing.

"My key message to everyone really is if you are heading back into the shops, please shop nice, remember to be respectful of others - both workers and other customers."

Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt told Morning Report most drivers were pleased with the decision, but some would prefer to continue to wear masks due to the confined space they work on.

"Not having to have those stretchy cords around your ears for nine or 10 hours a day will be a welcome relief.

"[Drivers] are very pleased but there's still a concern that this airborne virus has not been completely eliminated and I think the danger will still be with us for some time to come."

Drivers were told to ask passengers to use the back door if they did not wear a mask and that "worked fairly well", he said.

The union would be talking with management about improving ventilation inside buses with better air conditioning and screen protections for drivers, Froggatt said.

On Wellington's Lambton Quay, some were not ready to throw away their face coverings just yet, especially for flights and in crowded places. "I'd still probably keep a mask on for public transport, like buses and stuff like that," one said, while another would have preferred mandatory mask-wearing on public transport.

Masks must still be worn in places like hospitals, general practices, pharmacies and rest homes.

Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace backed that, and said scrapping the traffic light system was also likely to mean rest homes allowing more visitors.

"We've certainly heard from some of our members today that they will be relaxing those rules, that there won't be allocated times for people to visit, that people will be able to visit when they can subject to staff availability, so I'm sure that there will certainly be more flexibility."

Royal NZ College of GPs medical director Dr Brian Betty is urging people to still think about wearing masks even if the rules are gone.

"It's certainly something people should consider if they do live with co-morbidity, are slightly elderly or perhaps are at a gathering with older people or people who could be at risk."

That is exactly what's on the mind of Lynn from Dunedin.

"I'm quite happy not to have to wear a mask at work and during the day and all that sort of stuff but equally I do worry about everybody else in our community that sees it as a way of protecting themselves," she said.

"I'm still quite happy to wear a mask in the meantime, just to see how things go over the next few weeks particularly and make certain that the numbers do stay low."

There is a caveat - masks may be back if Covid-19 cases surge again.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs