National leader Judith Collins has admitted she made a mistake after she was caught on video over the weekend ordering icecream at the counter of a Queenstown café without wearing a mask.
The National leader, who has been quick to point out when others have run afoul of Covid-19 regulations, was joined by deputy leader Shane Reti and local MP Joseph Mooney – both of whom were also maskless – at Patagonia Chocolates on Saturday evening.
A spokesperson for Collins said on Monday that she “diligently follows public health advice as it is communicated to the public” and that the rule breach was unintentional.
The trio “removed their masks believing this was in accordance with advice that ‘customers can take off their masks so they can eat or drink’, as many other patrons in the café at the time clearly understood the rules to be also,” the spokesperson said. “After consulting the Covid-19 website, Collins accepts that, by clicking through to additional level 2 advice, it specifies that when picking up a takeaway order a customer must remain masked.
“She regrets not waiting another minute or two until seated at a table to remove her mask.”
A fellow customer at the café called Collins out for the breach, filming the politicians and sharing the video on social media.
“We were in there the day before and they asked us to put our masks on but I think they were intimidated [by the MPs],” Amber McGregor said.
“It came off like it was a statement. Everyone in the store was looking and noticed she wasn’t doing what everyone else was doing.”
McGregor called the actions “unfair” and “crazy”.
“She is the leader of the National Party and she is not complying with the rules,” she said.
Under New Zealand’s Covid-19 alert level 2 guidelines, face coverings are encouraged when dining out when you are not eating or drinking. Once seated and separated from others, wearing a mask is not required.
“You must wear a face covering when picking up a takeaway order,” the guidelines state.
University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker, a strong proponent of using masks to keep Covid-19 at bay in New Zealand, declined to single out any person or incident when approached by the Herald. But he acknowledged “eating and drinking environments are complicated”.
“It would be almost [Monty] Pythonesque to require people to eat and drink with a mask on,” he said. “There is a grey area where you need to take your mask off some of the time.”
People should wear a mask when entering or leaving a restaurant or going up to the counter, he said, but “you wouldn’t put it as an egregious example”.
Wearing a mask while out and about in an alert level 2 environment is important, but there’s room for interpretation about when it might need to be temporarily taken off – as opposed to a higher-risk setting like a hospital or MIQ facility, where he said there is less room for an individual’s discretion.
“Our mask-wearing culture still has a long way to go to be firmly established,” Baker said. “I think we do want to be sensible with masks. It needs to be an element of adjusting to the situation – sensible use.”
Collins’ spokesperson said the Opposition leader is, “like everyone else … endeavouring to keep up with rules that are changing frequently”.
“We suggest the Covid-19 website be amended to make it clearer that a mask is required for the period between when one orders food and sits to eat, or at least clarify there are additional stipulations not featured on the Cafes, Bars, Restaurants and Nightclubs webpage that one should refer to on the website,” the spokesperson added.
New Zealand has been at elevated alert levels for just over a month now as a result of an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant. Auckland, however, is the only region remaining in strict lockdown at alert level 4, while the rest of the nation is at alert level 2.
Earlier this month, Collins labelled microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles “a big, fat hypocrite” after Wiles was spotted at an Auckland beach with a University of Auckland colleague during lockdown.
Wiles, who has been a vocal advocate of mask-wearing and the Government’s elimination strategy, declined on Monday to comment on the video of Collins.
Speaking earlier this month to Newstalk ZB, she acknowledged her friend did break the rules by going for a swim but insisted she did not break any rules herself. Her friend is part of her bubble and she cycled the 5km from her house to the beach, she explained.
Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield also backed Wiles, telling a reporter during one of the Government’s daily Covid-19 press conferences that cycling 5km from home without wearing a mask is allowed if keeping away from others because it would fall under “vigorous” exercise.
Neither Collins nor Wiles are the first to have copped criticism for their interpretations of alert level rules, or what some have characterised as a lapse of judgment.
Exactly one year ago this week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologised for a selfie with supporters on the campaign trail in Palmerston North in which no one wore a mask or was socially distanced.
Under alert level 2 requirements at the time, masks were not required, but Ardern had repeatedly emphasised the need to “be vigilant” and social distance when they can.
“In that particular photo I made a mistake,” the PM acknowledged. “Yes, I should have moved further forwards and I should have asked them to step apart as well.
“It is hard. I will keep up, as I have, those awkward moments where I refuse to shake hands.”
Collins seized on the photo prior to the apology, telling media she was “staggered” by it.
“People aren’t stupid, you know,” she said. “The public will make their own minds up about who’s hypocritical.”
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