THEN: Masterton’s Queen St: A ghost-town.
Times-Age reporter TOM TAYLOR checks in with Masterton people one year on from the nation’s first lockdown.
Yesterday marked one year since the introduction of the four-tiered Alert Level system and New Zealand’s move to Alert Level 2. Thursday marks one year since the move to Alert Level 4, and the lockdown of our nation.
While most of the community was coming to grips with what the lockdown meant for their personal lives and for their families, Masterton District Council assets and operations manager David Hopman led the charge in combating the local spread of the virus.
As the controller for civil defence, Hopman led the Wairarapa Emergency Operations Centre, which was mobilised on March 22, 2020.
His team spaced itself out across its Waiata House headquarters to ensure social distancing between team members.
“We’re on a fast treadmill to get up to speed so we can deal with this,” Hopman had said at the time.
Reflecting on his time as controller of the EOC, Hopman said it was challenging, especially in its first few weeks.
“There was real concern in the whole country with everyone in lockdown and people getting sick.”
The EOC was activated for 69 days – much longer than it would have been for a civil defence emergency caused by a weather event.
“Certainly, the first few weeks were pretty full-on, not knowing how bad it was going to get,” Hopman said.
During the lockdown, Hopman and the EOC ensured that important messages got out to the community, and that the welfare needs of affected people were addressed.
Meanwhile, police had boosted their presence in the first few weeks of lockdown.
“There will be a lot more staff in uniform on the streets,” Wairarapa Police Area Commander Scott Miller had said as lockdown was announced last year.
Looking back, Miller said that the picture of policing had changed during lockdown.
“We changed our rosters and work patterns for our staff, covering the 24-hour period to be more visible to give more confidence to people during lockdown. It wasn’t that we had extra police out, we just changed what we did.”
As the crime rate reduced, police were able to redeploy resources into a focus on high-visibility and making people feel safe.
More police were also deployed into the CBD areas of towns, giving business owners confidence that their shops would not be broken into.
In the week leading up to the lockdown, Pak’n Save Masterton owner Andrew Summerville said there had been an increase in online and in-store buying, largely related to ‘panic-buying’.
“The hardest thing we are finding is the products that are getting hit the severest are out of stock,” Summerville had said at the time.
Last Friday, he said some of that pressure on stock had never abated. Pet food had been particularly difficult to source.
“All the stock is available; it’s just stuck on a container in the ports. It’s hard to fill the shelves when it’s not in your storeroom.”
A silver lining of the pandemic was that it had brought Summerville’s store closer together.
“We were front and centre, we were one of the essential worker categories, so we were open all the time, and having to operate through the uncertainty that covid-19 brought.”
Summerville considered his business lucky that it could continue to operate while so many others were forced to close.
“In general, I think we were really proud of what we did and kept coming to work and putting stock on the shelves … and helping everyone else stay at home safe.”
Construction was one of many sectors that had to cease operation during Level 4.
However, a few weeks into lockdown, Jennian Homes Wairarapa managing director Gareth Norris remained optimistic for his industry.
“With the sharemarket changing and hitting financial lows, we are still seeing interest in new homes,” Norris had said. He had predicted the region could be in for another building boom, with city-dwellers looking for a lifestyle change.
Last Friday, Norris said he stood by his prediction.
“We’ve seen record sales volumes. Section sales throughout the whole Wairarapa are at an all-time high. A lack of sections for people to move into or construct is currently an issue in Wairarapa. Post-lockdown, it’s definitely been a heightened market – it’s been a very busy market.”
Norris said that while the pandemic had put pressure on his business, the wage subsidy had relieved some of that pressure.
“We didn’t know what we were heading into or what to expect so the wage subsidy was terrific because it gave us all a sense of calm … It allowed everyone to shut their businesses down and head home and know that there was a level of security.”
Norris said that within 10 days of the return to Level 3, all his company’s projects were back up and running. He said that it was a privilege to be among the first businesses in the country able to return to quasi-normality.
While some sectors returned from lockdown into ‘business as usual’, the travel industry was forced to pivot.
“The booking conditions have completely changed,” House of Travel owner Sam Hepburn said.
One week out from lockdown last year, Hepburn had said that most travellers were looking to defer their bookings rather than cancelling completely. Two days later, he had said the focus had changed to getting overseas customers home safely.
“We’re frantically trying to get people home,” he had said.
Hepburn now said that travel agents had an important role to play during the pandemic as travel arrangements became more complicated.
“There are a lot of border restrictions and covid-19 testing that needs to be done. A lot of countries have declaration cards. Everyone has their own set of rules and regulations, and that’s ever-changing.”
In Hepburn’s experience, more people were seeking the advice of travel agents to deal with these changing circumstances.
He said their purpose of travel had also changed.
“We’ve found ourselves in a bit of a niche where people are needing to get home or get overseas for compassionate reasons.”