BANGKOK – New Zealand has ended most of its coronavirus lockdown restrictions as it prepares itself for a new normal.
Malls, retail stores and restaurants are reopening Thursday in the South Pacific nation of 5 million, and many people are returning to their workplaces. But most gatherings will be limited to 10 people and social distancing guidelines will remain in place.
The reopening reflects the success New Zealand has had in its bold goal of eliminating the virus. The country reported no new cases of the virus on Tuesday and Wednesday. More than 1,400 of the nearly 1,500 people who contracted COVID-19 have recovered, while 21 have died.
But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Southern Hemisphere nation faces the most challenging economic conditions since the Great Depression because of the virus.
“New Zealand is about to enter a very tough winter,” she said. “But every winter eventually is followed by spring, and if we make the right choices we can get New Zealanders back to work and our economy moving quickly again.”
In other developments around the Asia-Pacific region:
— THAILAND REPORTS NO NEW CASES: Thailand has reported no new confirmed cases of the coronavirus for the first time in more than two months. There also were no new deaths reported Wednesday, leaving the country’s total at 3,017 cases with 56 fatalities. Since the beginning of May, Thailand has reported single-digit daily increases with the exception of May 4, when a cluster pushed the number to 18. The last time Thailand reported no new cases was on March 9, when there were 50 cases in total with a single death. Thai authorities have been selectively easing restrictions meant to combat the coronavirus. Bangkok restaurants were allowed to reopen last week for sit-in dining with social distancing.
— MAJOR CHINESE MEETING LIKELY TO BE SHORTENED: A shorter-than-usual ban on drone use in the Chinese capital is seen as a signal that China will curtail its major political meeting of the year because of the coronavirus. Beijing police announced Wednesday that the use of drones, balloons, gliders and other low-flying objects will be banned for nine days, from May 20 to May 28. Such bans are common during major events. The National People’s Congress usually happens over two weeks in March but was postponed this year because of the virus outbreak. It is scheduled to start May 22, so the flying ban suggests it may last just one week. Some participants in a recent preparatory meeting for the congress joined by video conference, sparking speculation that some of the 3,000 delegates to the congress may do so too.
— 7 NEW CASES IN CHINA: China reported seven new cases Wednesday, six of them in the northeastern province of Jilin where authorities have raised alert levels and suspended rail connections to a county where a cluster of unknown origin has been growing. China has reported a total of 4,633 deaths among 82,926 cases. Authorities are preparing to test all 11 million residents for the virus in Wuhan, the city where the pandemic began late last year. The effort was initiated after a new cluster was discovered, the first local infections the government has reported in Wuhan since before a lockdown was eased in early April.
— SUMO WRESTLER DIES: A 28-year-old Japanese sumo wrestler died Wednesday from the coronavirus. Shoubushi, whose real name was Kiyotaka Suetake, is the first sumo wrestler known to have died from the virus and is among the youngest victims in Japan. He developed a fever on April 4 but could not get a test or find a hospital until four days later. Japan has set a very high bar for testing due to a lack of capacity. Avoiding close contact with others is a challenge in sumo, where wrestlers live together and train and eat together. Several other wrestlers have also been infected. The Summer Grand Sumo Tournament scheduled to start May 24 was canceled earlier this month.
— INDONESIA CASES RISE: Indonesia reported more than 600 new coronavirus cases for the first time on Wednesday, taking its total to 15,438. The 689 new cases were the most since 533 were reported on Saturday. The country has recorded 1,028 deaths. The spike comes as the government is considering a plan to start easing social restrictions next month to allow businesses to gradually reopen. The plan, still under development, aims to restore “business as usual” by the end of July. The economy grew just 2.9% in January-March, down from 5% a year earlier and its slowest expansion in almost two decades.
— CAMBODIA TO RESUME RICE EXPORTS: Cambodia plans to resume exports of standard grade white rice six weeks after a ban was imposed to avert local shortages during the coronavirus crisis. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the ban was lifted because the government felt assured there were sufficient supplies as farmers prepare for the new growing season with a July harvest. Exports of higher-value types of rice not eaten as daily food by most Cambodians were not banned for export. About half of Cambodia’s labor force is involved in agriculture. The country is not a major rice exporter, but its production has risen sharply in the past few years.
— LONG LINES AT SRI LANKA LIQUOR STORES: Long lines formed at liquor shops in Sri Lanka on Wednesday after they were allowed to reopen. Police tried to maintain social distancing among patrons who stood close together, ignoring health advice. Liquor shops were closed when the government imposed a 24-hour curfew on March 20 to help contain the coronavirus. State and private sector workers returned to work on Monday, when the curfew was lifted during daytime hours in 23 districts. A blanket curfew continues in two districts including the capital, Colombo.