WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Professional sport in New Zealand could welcome fans back to stadiums as early as next week with the government set to decide whether to lift all social distancing restrictions imposed to due the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will decide on Monday whether the country is ready to bring its alert system down to level 1, which would lift limits on mass gatherings that were imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
That would open the door for fans to attend the opening round matches of New Zealand’s “Super Rugby Aotearoa” tournament starting on June 13, and be a coup for the domestic game which has suffered financially due to the coronavirus shutdown.
“At level 1, all current rules on businesses and services are essentially lifted,” Ardern said on Wednesday. “Sports and concert stadiums can be sold out.”
Ardern said the government was working with stadiums to create a “COVID code” to ensure contact tracing was in place in case sports fans tested positive for the coronavirus.
“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,” she added.
Professional sport returned to the country on Wednesday with the opening day of the “NZ Premier League Tennis” tournament at Auckland’s closed Albany Stadium, a NZ$90,000 ($57,700) event organised to give local-based players a chance to earn income.
Organisers said they would look at opening the three-week event to fans if the government gave the go-ahead next week.
New Zealand recorded no new cases of coronavirus for a 12th consecutive day on Wednesday and has just one active case.
New Zealand Rugby boss Mark Robinson told Radio New Zealand the positive outlook was “breathing a huge amount of life into the game”.
“There are a lot of things to be optimistic about for the second half of the year,” he said.
($1 = 1.5603 New Zealand dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)