New Zealand’s sports industry has hailed today’s (Wednesday’s) announcement from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that attendance limits for outdoor events will be scrapped from this weekend, as part of an easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

New Zealand had been looked upon as the standard bearer for the global sports industry as it first reopened to fans amid the pandemic back in June 2020. However, of late, venues have been restricted to admitting fans in pods of 100 people dotted around stadia as the country has battled the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The Government has today announced that attendance limits for outdoor events will be ended from Saturday, while upping the number of people allowed to gather indoors from 100 to 200 under the changes to the red light traffic setting.

Outdoor face mask requirements are to be removed, while vaccine passes will no longer be required to be used from 11.59pm on April 4. “The evidence shows we are coming off the Omicron peak with cases in Auckland having already declined significantly, and a decline expected nationally by early April,” said Ardern.

“To date we’ve had more than 500,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and expert modellers say there have probably been 1.7 million actual infections. That figure, coupled with 95% of New Zealanders being fully vaccinated, means we now have a high level of collective immunity. New Zealanders have worked incredibly hard to get through this pandemic and as a result of those efforts we are now in a position to move forward and change the way we do things.”

Ardern added: “Putting people’s health first is the best economic approach. The hard work and sacrifices of New Zealanders delivered the lowest numbers of cases and deaths in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) for the last two years and puts us in the best position to recover strongly.

“With our cases coming down it’s time to take our next steps with confidence in the collective immunity and protections we have built up. These new settings support greater economic activity and get everyone closer to feeling a bit more normal, while also continuing to manage COVID-19 and provide protection and care for those who need it most.

“With our economy now larger than pre-COVID levels, record low levels of unemployment, and tourism about to reopen we are in a strong position to accelerate our recovery. Our COVID-19 restrictions have been tough, but they have delivered a strong foundation for us to move forward.”

Today’s news means that the ongoing Women’s Cricket World Cup will be able to put more tickets on sale for the remainder of the tournament. It will cover weekend group matches including New Zealand v Pakistan, England v Bangladesh and India v South Africa, plus the semi-finals and final on April 3 at Hagley Oval in Christchurch.

“World Cup semis and finals are special occasions that don’t come around too often – this is a great way for cricket whānau in Wellington and Christchurch to get out there, get together and be part of something special, no matter who is playing,” said CWC 22 CEO Andrea Nelson.

“We had sold out what we had available under the previous restrictions so it’s great to lift capacity and meet the demand which I know will be high.”

For domestic sport, the ongoing inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season will be able to move to full capacity. Two matches are scheduled on Saturday after the gathering restrictions lift – Highlanders against Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium (pictured) in Dunedin, and Chiefs against Crusaders in Hamilton.

Chiefs chief executive Michael Collins told the Stuff.co.nz website that the team was losing around NZ$500,000 (£263,000/€316,000/$348,000) per home game from operating under the current restrictions.

Asked if today’s news will prevent the club from recording a financial loss this year, Collins said: “Time will tell. Hopefully. Really hope so. But we will know more after this game, and after the next couple of games.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s NRL rugby league franchise, the Warriors, can now plan in earnest for a return home. COVID-19 travel restrictions between Australia and New Zealand forced the Warriors to play their ‘home’ games during the 2020 and 2021 seasons at Central Coast Stadium in New South Wales.

While the Warriors spelled out a plan to return home back in November, this has since been delayed. The July 3 match against Wests Tigers is now set to be the Warriors’ first at Mount Smart Stadium since they hosted South Sydney on August 30, 2019.

Warriors CEO Cameron George said: “Our first game back against Wests Tigers on July 3 will be one of the biggest and certainly the most emotional in the club’s history. We want to see the place packed to the rafters for what will be an unforgettable occasion.”

Image: Schwede66/CC BY-SA 3.0/Edited for size