* Lockdown eases from midnight on Monday
* An estimated 400,000 people to return to work
* Businesses prepare for contactless operations
* Surfers ready to hit the water
By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON, April 27 (Reuters) - New Zealanders will be allowed to go fishing, surfing, hunting and hiking this week for the first time in more than a month as the country begins to ease its way out of a strict lockdown that successfully slowed the spread of the coronavirus.
Around 400,000 people will return to work after the country shifts its alert level down a notch at midnight on Monday, but shops and restaurants will remain closed as several social restrictions remain in place.
New Zealand’s 5 million residents were subjected to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the pandemic, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closing offices, schools, bars and restaurants, including take away and delivery services, on March 26.
Beaches, waterfronts and playgrounds were shut, effectively restricting people to their homes and short walks around their neighbourhood.
Many businesses began preparations over the weekend to restart operations this week while maintaining ongoing social distancing rules.
Eateries announced contactless delivery plans. Retail stores showcased latest collections on their website for home delivery orders. Office towers posted social distancing rules on elevators and public areas.
The parliament and courts across the country will also resume from Tuesday.
Still, Ardern stressed that public gatherings remain banned and asked people to remain in their “bubble”, or with their close relatives.
Keen fishers will be permitted to cast a line from a wharf only as boating, yachting and other team sports or training remained barred. Hunting will be allowed on private land with special restrictions.
“We must make sure that we do not let the virus run away on us again and cause a new wave of cases and deaths,” Ardern said at a news conference on Monday. “To succeed we need to hunt down the last few cases of the virus.”
New Zealand has reported 1,122 cases of COVID-19, including 19 deaths.
Ben Kennings, the general manager for industry group Surfing New Zealand, said members were itching to return the sea in a country where an average 60,000 boarders enter the waters weekly.
“We have done well to stay out of the water, but tomorrow there’s going to be a lot of people keen to go surfing,” Kennings said. “It’s a hugely popular sport here. It is an individual sport that can be practiced with social distancing,” he added.
Trust in governments in Australia and New Zealand has risen since the start of the pandemic, opinion polls show, with the idealogically opposite leaders of both countries hailed for their management in suppressing the coronavirus.
The rate of increase in new cases has been below 1% for two weeks now in both countries - much lower than in many other countries.
While Ardern has generally received public support, there has been growing criticism that similar results may have been achieved with less stringent lockdown measures, as in Australia.
Getting the $200 billion trade and tourism dependent economy running again from a standing start will be a major challenge for Ardern as she faces national elections in September. (Editing by Jane Wardell)