The Cook Islands Government has decided to open its borders up again to allow its residents in New Zealand to return - but under strict conditions.
The island nation's Cabinet made the decision last night and means Cook Islands nationals, as well as work permit holders and permanent residents stuck here will be able to fly back.
The decision comes about two weeks after a total border closure to incoming flights was put in place after a Covid-19 outbreak within the community was identified in Auckland.
That also resulted in the last minute cancellation of an Air New Zealand Auckland to Rarotonga flight on August 15 after prominent Auckland-based Cook Islands doctor and former prime minister, Dr Joe Williams, was identified as the Covid-19 patient in hospital at the time.
Among those delighted at last night's news is Veena Aperau, whose two teenage children have been stuck in New Zealand since flights were cancelled.
"Oh my goodness, I'm over the moon," she told the Cook Islands News newspaper.
"Finally our prayers have been answered."
Her sister has been caring and home-schooling her son, 17, and 15-year-old daughter in West Auckland during the city's lockdown.
"They can't even go to the shop," she told the publication.
Aperau said her children had been pleading, every day, asking their mum: "When can we come back, when can we come back?"
Others hoping to now be allowed to return to Rarotonga include tennis star Brett Baudinet and Kristle Jones, the partner of Cook Islands Security boss Chris Denny.
Jones said: "I'm so happy to finally be on my way home! My three-week visit to Australia turned into six months away. Two weeks quarantine at home is a small price to pay to be able to come home while also keeping Rarotonga Covid-free."
The Cabinet met yesterday to decide the new travel rules, which came into effect overnight. Those allowed to enter the country under the new travel advisory will be required to quarantine in a designated residence, under supervision.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna said this was a challenging time for everyone, and many factors have been taken into consideration in revising the travel ban.
"We believe we have made a well-informed decision based on advice from Te Marae Ora and other agencies. Cabinet will continue to monitor this situation."
The only exemptions for inbound travellers will be for Cook Islanders, who have a Cook Islands status stamp in their passport or from immigration; permanent residents, work permit holders and resident permit holders.
They will have to do 14 days' supervised quarantine.
Before flying, they must provide a negative Covid-19 test result, taken within four days of departing Auckland; have completed an exit health clearance from Auckland International Airport; and have a pre-approved Rarotonga residence for supervised quarantine.
On arriving, they must do those 14 days quarantine, undertake further Covid-19 testing in Rarotonga, and complete an exit health clearance from Te Marae Ora on day 14, before they can leave quarantine.
Aperau said their family had already made a quarantine plan: her son and daughter would stay with her mother in their family home, while she and other family members would stay with relatives.
They would drop off food every day but, for a little longer, would have to rely on video-chat hugs.
When they came out of quarantine, though, they'll be looking forward to big hugs and a big dinner out.
Puna said the decision was made on the advice of public health professionals and senior government officials here and in New Zealand.
"Can I also assure our communities in Rarotonga that this will be 'supervised' quarantine overseen by Te Marae Ora, through their established community health clinics and partnerships with the community and puna."
The Covid-19 Act 2020 imposes a penalty of up to 12 months imprisonment or a $10,000 fine, for breaching quarantine rules.
Plans for travel bubble put on hold - but not off the table
New Zealand Trade Minister David Parker said plans for a Cook Islands travel bubble had been put on hold by the outbreak of community transmission in Auckland.
But government officials were continuing "quite successfully" to work through rules to open the borders, in due course.
"I don't think it's off the table, [but] it has always been a written term of that agreement that we don't have community transmission," Parker told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"If we are going to rely on each other as equivalent to each other, without quarantine or managed isolation, we have to be assured that neither of us have community transmission.
"We were going to start with the Cook Islands but of course that has been delayed because of the cluster in Auckland."
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was still keen to establish travel arrangements with neighbouring countries but his first priority was for state borders to reopen.
"I'd like to see that also if we can among the Pacific nations," he said. "I can see that as the next step, but right now we're trying to get domestic borders open."
- Cook Islands News