Covid-19: Retail group calls for in-store mask mandate to go

Source: 1News

A retail lobby group says masks should no longer be mandatory in stores, but a health expert says New Zealand needs to toughen up on the policy or Kiwis risk getting sicker.

Orange traffic light rules continue to mandate face coverings in stores, but Retail NZ's chief executive Greg Harford told 1News that the mask requirements were past their use-by date.

"The reality is that customers are over the mask rules. Fewer than a third of customers are wearing them around the country," he said.

READ MORE: NZ still 'lagging behind' on opening up - Flight Centre boss

"Countries overseas have moved on - there's no mask requirements in retail in places like Australia or the UK or the US.

"We need to start moving forward as well."

Retailers say mask exemptions are easy to obtain and that WorkSafe has advised them to avoid engaging with customers who don't want to mask up.

"Having a mandatory requirement that applies across the board, that's not enforced, just doesn't make any sense," Harford said.

He said it was time to make retail mask use recommended - but optional.

READ MORE: Health system hit hard by winter illness, Covid numbers persist

But one leading health expert says the concerns for retailers are only part of the picture amid a pandemic.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker.

Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker said New Zealanders needed to mask up more, not less.

"We need a huge shift in thinking if we're going to keep on top of this virus," he said.

Baker said Omicron, and particularly its more infectious new sub-variants, were "very good" at escaping the immunity offered by both past infections and vaccines.

"So I think more than ever we need to rely on masks."

He called on the government to produce a new national strategy on masking.

READ MORE: More than 150 experts plea for classroom masking over winter

Baker also said that higher-quality, affordable masks needed to be readily available, and that tighter masking rules were needed in schools.

Covid Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said mask-wearing remained "incredibly important" and that "current rules are helping keep pressure off the health system".

Verrall said New Zealanders should "keep up good mask-wearing, as reinfection is still a possibility".