Passengers wearing face masks at Auckland Airport (Photo: Getty Images)
Passengers wearing face masks at Auckland Airport (Photo: Getty Images)

The BulletinMarch 17, 2020

The Bulletin: Strong warnings amid Covid-19 gathering guidelines

Passengers wearing face masks at Auckland Airport (Photo: Getty Images)
Passengers wearing face masks at Auckland Airport (Photo: Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: New guidelines on gatherings and social distancing announced, OCR slashed ahead of fiscal stimulus, and Air NZ facing crushing losses.

Gatherings of 500 or more people have been banned in the latest round of measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19. It has meant the cancellation of many events, some of which are listed in yesterday’s Live Updates page of all major developments. Included in them are Polyfest, which is sadly off for the second year in a row. It was an example of an event in which contact tracing would be impossible, should a case be found, because of the sheer number of attendees. The crowd size limit rules out more than 100 events over the next month, and there will be huge implications for that part of the hospitality and tourism industry.

The rules are an attempt to enforce social distancing, in case of an outbreak. Schools have been exempted, but more specific advice from the Ministry of Education is on the way for them, reports Stuff. It is likely that schools will still look to limit the number of people in any one place at any one time. The NZ Herald reports that the ministry is currently ringing around to assess capacity and capability for teaching to take place online, however unless community transmission of the coronavirus takes place, it is unlikely that schools will be closed outright. The measures are understood to be partly inspired by countries in Asia that have been successful in preventing outbreaks from getting out of control – here is a New York Times report on Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

PM Jacinda Ardern says a policy of social distancing should now be treated as a new normal. To reiterate those messages from yesterday, the purpose of social distancing is about keeping everyone safe, as it slows any potential spread. It’s a very real concern that the health system won’t be able to handle the volume of cases if there is a massive outbreak – Italy in recent days giving a stark example of what that looks like. Newsroom’s Marc Daalder has spoken to health system experts in New Zealand, who warn that slowing any spread is essential if the country’s Intensive Care Units are going to be able to withstand the pressure.

To give some examples of how that new normal is playing out, there was a note on Checkpoint last night that Unite Union have serious concerns about workers on the floor at SkyCity casino, and the NZ Herald reports that couriers will stop taking signatures upon delivery of packages.

Major businesses are also in the process of stepping up their social distancing protocols, reports Business Desk (paywalled.) Among the measures being taken: some are cancelling all non-essential domestic and international travel, others are telling any employees able to work from home to do so, and others still are requiring staff to stay on the floor that they’d normally work on during the workday. In case you missed it, Richard Simpson put together some simple tips for workplaces to adopt, if people are going to be in the office. Among a whole lot of other businesses, we at The Spinoff will be testing out a work from home day later this week. Regular coverage will continue as normal.

And speaking of wider community safety, the government has warned travellers who don’t have self-isolation plans that they will face deportation. Newshub had a report yesterday morning about backpackers who were fairly blase about the whole thing, and it’s fair to say that was not a popular position. Later on they followed up with some much stronger comments from the PM, who said that those who didn’t have self-isolation plans in place would have to either accept being detained, or be deported. To quote her directly, she said those who didn’t adhere to the rules were “not welcome,” and that there were “high chances of being refused future visa applications here and overseas.”

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A media release hit the inbox right when yesterday’s Bulletin was being sent out – the Reserve Bank had a surprise update. It turned out to be a major cut in the Official Cash Rate, which went from an already record low of 1.0% to 0.25% – for more on what that means, and why the Reserve Bank is doing it, read this cheat sheet. It comes ahead of a massive fiscal package today, to be delivered by finance minister Grant Robertson – Stuff reported yesterday that he had welcomed the OCR cut, and that it will be backed up with billions of dollars today. He also talked about bringing in the business sector and unions in protecting jobs amid the wider economic downturn.

Air New Zealand will be among the companies most eagerly awaiting support. The NZ Herald reported last night that they will be cutting up to 30% of all jobs at the airline, after cancelling the vast majority of upcoming international flights, and amid lower demand for domestic flights. To put their losses in context, the revenue for the overall business will drop from about $6 billion a year, to new forecasts of around $1 billion. They’ve been in a trading halt, but Checkpoint’s business update included some details of the wider tourism sector, with some businesses currently suffering huge share market losses. Auckland Airport ended down just under 21%, and Tourism Holdings (involved in the campervan market) were down 31% for the day. Business Desk (paywalled) have a wider wrap on the market close, and it should be noted that a few companies saw gains – particularly those involved in healthcare.

Retail is a sector that was already feeling a fair bit of pressure, and now is staring at heavy losses. The NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Aimee Shaw reports that thousands of jobs could go over the period of the recession, particularly those in areas of discretionary spending. So far this month there has been a jump on sales around things like groceries, but those numbers are not expected to be sustained.

And in this area, it’s the smaller businesses who could end up suffering the most. Michael Andrew knocked on doors at a block of Dominion Road, finding out how it was affecting small business there. What comes through is a real sense of fear and uncertainty, with no clear picture how long the various restrictions are going to last.

One more Covid-19 story for the morning: It could have a brutal economic impact for some media companies. As Duncan Greive reports, a whole lot of industries and businesses that are suffering right now are also the ones who buy a lot of advertising – think travel and events companies especially, along with a wider recessionary impact on marketing budgets. Sky TV is also in serious strife, having made a series of acquisitions last year based on the idea that sport would be their major product.

So, as you can see there’s a lot of news going on here, and a lot of developments that are taking place each day. For the foreseeable future, we at The Spinoff will be doing live updates pages, which you can bookmark and check back in on during the afternoon and evening. Here’s today’s live updates page – we’ll start a new one each day and pin it to the top of The Spinoff’s homepage.

And on an entirely unrelated note, here’s a good story this morning about a smarter rubbish system being successful. Stuff’s Christina Persico reports that in New Plymouth, recycling bin contamination rates are down and hundreds of tonnes of rubbish have been diverted from landfills, since the start of a new kerbside food scraps collection scheme. It’s costing the Council a bit more, but with a rising population those costs would have gone up anyway.

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Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores (maybe?) in the third season of Westworld. Photo: HBO.

Right now on The Spinoff: Don’t worry, there’s some non-Covid stuff that’s worth reading as well. Shabnam Dastgheib reports on a failed cannabis museum, and speaks to the founder who says there’s still a significant amount of stigma in New Zealand against the drug. Sam Brooks writes about the return of Westworld, with season 3 coming out just in time for some nights in. And Nicholas Holm has put together a really interesting analysis of the recent Sir Bob Jones defamation case, and how it was a lost opportunity to debate and clarify how satire is defined.

For a feature today, another visual way of explaining how flattening the Covid curve works. Many thousands of you have found the graphs produced by Toby Morris and Siouxsie Wiles really useful in explaining how these processes happen on a population-wide scale. What this visualisation from the Washington Post does really well is depict how individuals fit into wider networks. Note – normally WaPo is paywalled, but this piece has been put out for free.

In sport today, a piece about the grief that a lot of fans are feeling right now at their competitions being cancelled. Jonathan Liew at the Guardian is one of the more artful writers in the sports world, and he’s captured something that I think many of us understand but don’t feel particularly comfortable articulating. It’s okay to feel sad about these games (or live music shows, or festivals and so on) not being on, and it’s okay to feel weird in their absence. Of course, keep it in perspective, as Liew does here, but do reflect on that fact that these sorts of activities are what makes life feel normal for many people, and the dislocation from that can be jarring.

Meanwhile, the season might already be over for the Warriors. The NZ Herald reports that the club faces a nigh-on impossible choice – be based in Australia indefinitely, or basically bow out for the season. The NRL has said that the show will go on with or without the Warriors, and at this stage intends for games to go ahead behind closed doors this weekend.

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