Fans set to return as New Zealand loosens virus restrictions

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              FILE - In this May 14, 2020, file photo, passengers wait to board their flight at Christchurch Airport in Christchurch, New Zealand.New Zealand has eradicated the coronavirus from its shores after health officials reported on Monday June 8, 2020 that the final person known to have contracted an infection had recovered. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Sports fans again will be able to fill stadiums in New Zealand after the government on Monday removed restrictions on public gatherings imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand will move from midnight Monday to alert level 1 under which life returns almost to normal, though border restrictions remain in force.

New Zealand has succeeded in eradicating the coronavirus; as of Monday it had no active cases of Covid-19 and hadn’t recorded a new infection for 17 days.

At a news conference Monday, Ardern said alert level 1 means that public events can take place “without limitation,” including sports events. Stadiums will be able to accommodate fans without regulations around social distancing.

One of the immediate beneficiaries will be the Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament which begins June 13. The tournament involves New Zealand’s five Super Rugby team, which will meet each other home and away over 10 weeks.

The opening match between the Highlanders and Chiefs potentially could be played in front of 25,000 fans at the Highlanders’ roofed stadium in Dunedin.

In announcing the impending move to level 1 last week, Ardern said some precautions would still be necessary at sporting events.

“All gatherings of any size can occur,” she said. “However, we are working with ticketing agencies and large scale event organizers on a COVID code whereby contact details are collected so that we can keep a track of people at large gatherings in the event that we need to follow them up for contact tracing.

“For those larger events it is a matter of preparedness for us. We may be confident that we’re an environment where we do not have COVID in circulation. But if we have a situation where even one case emerges, and it’s found that they had been in attendance at a large event, we always have to be prepared to be able to contact trace successfully.”

International sporting events are still ruled out. Ardern said Monday New Zealand’s borders will remain closed to prevent the virus returning.