By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealanders queued for burgers, fries and coffee takeaway on Tuesday after they were freed from a month-long lockdown, which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has credited with eliminating domestic transmission of the coronavirus.
Around 400,000 people returned to work after Ardern shifted the country's alert level down a notch, loosening some of the tough movement restrictions that shut down businesses for weeks.
"It’s hard to explain how good this tastes," Christopher Bishop, a lawmaker, said on Twitter after posting a picture with a takeaway coffee cup.
Long queues of cars snaked up to McDonald's Corp outlets in Auckland and Wellington from the early hours as people sought a fast food fix.
"We got quarter pounders, Big Macs, drinks ... I've still got two cheeseburgers left but I can't finish them," Tai Perez, who arrived at a McDonald's outlet in Auckland at 4am, was quoted as saying by the New Zealand Herald.
Surfing, walks on the beach and a round of golf were other popular pursuits on Tuesday as the country's 5 million residents experienced a taste of freedom after one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ardern said the shutdown had effectively eliminated the coronavirus in the country. New COVID-19 infections ticked up by two on Tuesday to 1,124 cases, with a community transmission rate of just 0.4%. There have been 19 deaths.
Still, Ardern was quick to stress that the reduction in the official threat status to Level 3 from Level 4 was merely the first step and it would be weeks before all movement restrictions were wound back.
"It's an ongoing battle," Ardern said at a televised news conference. "There is no one point in time that this mission ends. We are in the next phase of the battle and we are not done."
The Level 3 restrictions, which limit people to local travel and keep malls, pubs, hairdressers and other businesses closed, will last for at least another two weeks, Ardern said.
Any step down to Level 2 would depend on a review of the situation at May 11, she said, adding it was also possible some restrictions could be reintroduced. There was no immediate timetable for subsequent steps down to Level 1 and a return to post-crisis life.
"No one wants a second wave in New Zealand and we must guard against that," Ardern said.
There was growing debate about the terminology that should be used for New Zealand's status in relation to the coronavirus spread, with some experts saying "elimination" would not allow for recurrent small numbers of cases.
"Elimination does not mean zero cases," Ardern clarified. "It would be an ongoing campaign and zero tolerance for cases."
Ardern's government now faces the challenge of restarting the $200 billion trade and tourism dependent economy as it heads into national elections in September.
Ardern told parliament on Tuesday that economic activity would rise under Level 3 restrictions to about 60-70% of its usual capacity.
Westpac Bank warned in a note on Tuesday that NZ$20 billion ($12 billion) of government stimulus may not be enough to prevent a steep slide, forecasting GDP to fall 6.3% in 2020.
Westpac also said the RBNZ would likely need to double its existing NZ$30 billion quantitative easing programme next month and reduce the official cash rate to -0.5% in November.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Jane Wardell)