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The Bulletin: Religious groups struggle with level two limits

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Religious groups struggle with level two limits, many more kids going back to school today, and further cellphone tower attacks over the weekend.

Another weekend has passed with strict attendance restrictions on religious gatherings, despite the country moving into level two. The vast majority of worship over the weekend still took place online, as it has for about two months now. For a story about how such services work, this piece from Tagata Pasifika gives a glimpse of the measures that were taken to keep communities connected. And as this piece about Indian community groups by Guarav Sharma shows, the community work of religious groups has continued unabated throughout this all despite the buildings being closed.

But since the move down to level two, there has been increasing disquiet among some faith groups at the ten person limit, at a time when larger groups are starting to congregate in other places and situations. As Rev. Frank Ritchie, a church minister and broadcaster from Hamilton put it, “the problem here isn’t that we’re restricted for safety, it’s that we’re restricted while other problematic industries are trusted to keep things safe.”

The headlines were grabbed over the weekend by Destiny Church, which held a drive-in service on Sunday morning, reports Stuff. In the end, there were distancing and contact tracing measures in place, with some people inside the church and some outside in cars. Bishop Brian Tamaki labelled the limits on gatherings a breach of rights, particularly that of religious freedom. Publicity over the course of the week meant that it was effectively a very public test of the limits, and how they will be enforced. Incidentally, Brian and Hannah Tamaki also attended a party at an Auckland Viaduct venue on Saturday night, which was itself a test of the new rules.

Destiny aren’t the only religious group who have reacted negatively to the rules, though others aren’t challenging the rules in the same way. City Impact Church put out a press release – in their words from “over 75 major Christian Leaders of denominations / Movements / Churches, across the spectrum of the church in NZ”, calling for not just an increase in the attendance limit for churches, but a new system by which they can fill up to 50% of a room. The release also argued that churches were as essential service, in that they were a place of vital community support. The Catholic Church in NZ expressed disappointment at only being able to open for private prayer, and along with the Anglicans called for an increase in the limit. National leader Simon Bridges put out a release comparing it to the decision to increase attendance limits at funerals, saying it would be the right thing to do here too.

Complicating the issue for churches is that they’re theoretically more dangerous than other sorts of gatherings of people, because of the singing. That type of breathing sends droplets out a long way, which has resulted in some terrible incidents when an attendee has happened to be infected overseas. Christianity Today has reported on a mitigation being used in Germany, which recently reopened churches – there many churches have taken singing out of their programmes for the time being, much as that chafes against what a church service would normally include. But keeping congregations safe is likely to be top of mind for churches when they do return.

Amid all of that, the government will have to make a decision on whether or not to relax the attendance limits.  We don’t yet know how long we’ll be at level two for, and there is always the possibility of moving back into more severe alert levels, so many churches will be nervous about having to wait weeks or months before they can start again. It should probably also be acknowledged that among all the sacrifices New Zealanders have had to make over the last two months, giving up the community and fellowship of religious gatherings is among the most difficult.


Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”


It’s back to school today, with many more kids likely to be in class than in previous weeks. As Newshub reports, things will be different compared to the start of the year – a principal in that story talked about developing new routines for students so that they’d be regularly sanitising their hands and cleaning down surfaces. From an educational perspective, it is likely that many teachers will schedule some catch-up lessons for the first few weeks, because there will be wide disparities around how much kids were able to get through the curriculum at home.

Meanwhile, teachers are infuriated at their registration fees being increased by the NZ Teaching Council, reports Alice Webb-Liddall for The Spinoff. Previously it was $220 every three years – now teachers will have to pony up $157 every year, which in other words more than doubles their obligations. It cuts against workforce feedback and union advocacy, and now some teachers are asking what exactly they’re getting in return for their fees.


Further attacks took place on cellphone towers over the weekend, reports Newshub. It means more than a dozen towers have been vandalised since the start of the year, with similar attacks also being reported overseas. Such attacks tend to be associated with conspiracy theories around 5G – even if the towers themselves are not 5G capable, that is. While we cannot say with absolute certainty that believers of these conspiracy theories are behind the attacks, they’re definitely being celebrated in the corners of the internet that foster such beliefs, as this remarkable long-term investigation by David Farrier shows.


More information has emerged on the unauthorised police trial of the Clearview AI facial recognition software, from Radio NZ’s Mackenzie Smith. Dozens of searches were conducted on the platform, including for suspects. The police say they won’t be using it again – but in part, they’ve put it back on the shelf because it didn’t work, particularly in searches for people of Māori or Polynesian ethnicity, which was one aspect the police tested Clearview on. The broader question is whether police will continue to use or test facial recognition software – right now they say there are no specific plans.


The previously threatened water restrictions are now officially in place in Auckland, reports Stuff. As of Saturday, those in the biggest city are no longer allowed to use water outside – no washing the car, no watering the garden in short. Depending on whether reservoir lake levels continue to fall, further restrictions are possible. Residents have been assured that the water won’t fully run dry, because some of the supply comes from the Waikato River. But if it isn’t a wet winter, there are going to be serious problems next summer.


From the Friday files: There have now been a couple of really strong longreads out of the massive release of government documents, and the weekend gave me a chance to read them properly. So for the next few days, we’ll feature some of those.

Today, it’s a piece from Newsroom’s Marc Daalder, which focuses on March – the “month that changed New Zealand.” It picks up the story at the time when international cases are trickling in, the outlook is worsening for other countries, and it was becoming clear that the prospect of halting the virus by closing the border was diminishing by the day. A direct line is also drawn between the Imperial College modelling showing high casualties coming out, and the alert level system that was introduced – just six days later.


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

Right now on The Spinoff, there is an unfathomably large collection of good new reads. Michael Andrew went to Rainbow’s End to see how the theme park is going about reopening at level two. Vanessa Schouten writes about the moral implications of claiming the wage subsidy, and whether some businesses should pay it back. Meleika Gesa writes about the ‘real Lord of the Flies’ story that has recently gone viral, and how it erases the Tongan values which actually helped the shipwrecked teenagers survive. Public health expert Charlotte Paul writes about the lessons Covid-19 holds for our understanding of the common good. Fiona Fraser writes about sex workers having to become public health educators with clients who didn’t get the message about not breaking bubbles. Tamsyn Matchett discovers a new importance in being kind with kids learning from home. Jeremy Rose speaks to the CEO of Te Papa about leading the national museum out of lockdown. James Eunson writes about rail in Dunedin, and a growing community push for services to be restored. Hayden Donnell profiles Heta Gardiner, a journalist in the press gallery who has often found himself the lone voice asking about Māori. David Brain writes about a new poll that shows a glimmer of hope for the tourism industry from domestic visitors.

And a couple of pieces about TV: Like a telly sommelier, Sam Brooks gives a guide for how to match your mood in any given moment to a particular show. And Jordan Hamel speaks to the stars of The Luminaries, the highly-anticipated small screen adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s novel.


For a feature today, a buzzy look into the science behind why being lost is such a terrifying phenomenon for people. Published in Wired, it expands on the idea that people who get lost end up circling the same spot again and again as they try and walk back into safety. Along the way, there are diversions into psychology, evolution, and whether or not it matters to simply have one leg that is longer than the other. Here’s an excerpt:

People who have been truly lost never forget the experience. Suddenly disconnected from all that surrounds them, they are plunged into a relationship with an utterly alien world. They think they are going to die. Horror-struck, their behavior becomes so confounding that finding them is as much a psychological challenge as a geographical one. One ranger with 30 years’ experience told me, “You’ll never be able to figure out why lost people make their decisions.”

Lost is a cognitive state. Your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: Not only are you stricken with fear, you also lose your ability to reason. You suffer what neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux calls a “hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion.” 90 percent of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost—by running, for instance. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do.


When sport returns, spare a thought for the Southern Steel, who are facing a brutal schedule in the ANZ Premiership. Newshub reports the Steel will have to travel up from Invercargill to Auckland every week to play, because every game is going to be held in the Auckland Netball Centre to minimise risk. The flights will be chartered, so they at least won’t have to go through airport terminals each time.


That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme



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