Could allowing New Zealand restaurants to operate takeaways in a safe and contactless manner under Alert level 4 boost public morale to endure longer lockdowns?

Public morale, like an individual’s willpower, is a finite resource that tends to get dissipated if not nurtured properly through a multitude of techniques and approaches. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in announcing the cabinet’s decision to extend Auckland’s Alert level 4 lockdown by another week on Monday, September 13, has surely done her part as the leader of the nation – acknowledging Aucklanders for making sacrifices to help in containing and getting over the Delta outbreak, and reminding them that the job was still not finished, and more efforts were required from them. 

Ardern’s persuasive and emphatic appeal would certainly have lifted many a drooping shoulder and assuaged anxious minds within the members of the public and have given a new sense of purpose to further endure another week of Alert Level 4 lockdown. 

The accompanying tactical announcement of Auckland moving into Alert Level 3 after 11.59 p.m. Tuesday, September 21, would further give hope to many more as they can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel and imagine in their minds of gaining some kind of freedom, back. 

This announcement of the extension of Alert Level 4 lockdown was certainly different than the last such announcement about two weeks ago when Ardern had delivered the cabinet’s decision to extend lockdown almost open-endedly, without suggesting any possible further assurance of moving alert levels down anytime soon. 

So, there was clearly more hope on offer, than what was available about two weeks ago when the Delta outbreak was far from contained and the numbers of infections in the community were rising unabatedly. 

It is different on this occasion, when Delta though contained, public health officials are dealing with a long tail of the outbreak which continues to see numbers of infections coming in double digits. 

Yet, Ardern’s announcement reveals that the government would consider moving Auckland into Alert Level 3 soon. 

Clearly the role of public morale in enduring longer lockdowns is coming into play. 

Lockdowns can be mentally tough, draining, and exhaustive for a vast segment of the population, especially those who have not experienced any restrictions on freedom for decades. 

In that regard, allowing restaurants to operate takeaways in a safe and contactless manner, fully complying with public health safety goals could surely uplift the mood of Aucklanders (and the nation) and add up their resolve to endure longer lockdowns. 

Buying food from outside and taking home to eat with family and friends – takeaways – have historically enhanced people’s sense of general well-being, creating an unmistakable sense of exhilaration and elation - signs of living in good times. 

A brief foray into the history of New Zealand’s culinary scene will reveal how the culture of dining-out began to develop in the period between the 1950s-60s – a period coinciding with the exalted sense of hope and anticipation – following decades of despair and gloom that characterised the great wars of the twentieth century. 

In the past thirty years, takeaways have become more important than ever before in New Zealand’s culinary scene with people preferring to buy exotic foods cooked by professional chefs, and eating in the comfort of their own homes (and other places outside restaurants) – thereby accentuating the sense of contentment and elation that comes from eating outside cooked food. 

More recently when New Zealanders were allowed out of Alert Level 4 lockdown restrictions (April 2020 and September 2021 when the rest of NZ moved out of Alert Level 4) most of us had celebrated with takeaways of our favourite food, before getting the ability to dine out altogether. 

Even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shared her sense of exhilaration for Wellington’s move into Alert Level 3 with a takeaway coffee. 

Clearly, there is something wired in our contemporary human minds that finds the experience of eating out and takeaways fascinating, liberating, and shall I say “therapeutic.” 

The long lines seen in front of the deli section of some supermarkets with permission to serve hot foods, every time one manages to enter them after struggling through the lines outside the stores under current Alert Level 4 lockdown would suffice how much New Zealanders love the opportunity to eat outside cooked food. 

The outside cooked food as humble as a Kiwi pie or the unfanciful fried chicken and chips is getting out of proportionate respect from desperate takeaway hunters - as we may call them in absence of better words – during the current level of restrictions under the Alert Level 4 lockdown in Auckland. 

So, what if New Zealanders can be given some “additional” freedom than what they are getting right now - of having the ability to purchase a variety of takeaway foods without compromising public health safety goals – in lieu of enduring longer lockdowns to get on top of Covid outbreaks. 

Some may find such a suggestion preposterous, outright offensive, and even purported to defeat the government’s overall elimination strategy in managing the tricky Covid-19 virus. 

However, that’s not the intention here. 

Instead, the goal is to add some imagination, and potentially enrich, the government’s static view on lockdowns. 

Right now, what this government has got is a very restrictive view of lockdowns, and an arbitrary definition of “essential services,” that deserves continuous probing despite the government’s self-adulation on how it is being currently managed. 

While most New Zealanders fully understand the experiences from overseas, where opening up of dining-out restaurants without fully achieving either the elimination of Covid-19 virus or complete vaccination of the population has resulted in a spike in the number of cases and overwhelming their respective public health systems. 

What bewilders Kiwis though is why the government can allow superettes and dairy stores to operate in a “high-trust” model of letting one customer in at a time, whereas not showing enough trust on the restaurants to sell “takeaways” in a contactless manner.

For that matter, other small businesses such as butchers, greengrocers and others are also longing for similar kind of minimal freedom to commercially operate to survive the grim economic fallout of complete lockdowns. 

However, the potential “therapeutic” benefit takeaways might be able to offer Kiwis struggling to cope with acute restrictions on their freedoms, might be able to add some more resolve to endure lockdowns and further augment the overall goal of the elimination strategy. 

Simultaneously, such a move will likely give the desperately struggling food and hospitality industry some hope  of surviving, in spite of lockdowns, without compromising the larger public health safety goals.