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New Zealand welcomes fans at stadiums after last COVID-19 patient recovers

Supporters watch during the Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and Chiefs on June 13, 2020, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

More than 20,000 fans packed into Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Saturday to watch a Super Rugby game between the Otago Highlanders and the Waikato Chiefs. There was no social distancing. No required masks. People were hugging and sharing beers. It was the first time New Zealanders had been allowed back in any stadium to watch live sports, and fans were euphoric.

"Everyone has been dying for this moment," fan Iki Uele told ESPN. "Being locked down, we just needed something to vent out."

What rugby fans are experiencing in New Zealand is something that sports fans around the world can only dream of. The island nation is one of the very first to allow large numbers of fans back into stadiums to watch live sports, and that’s entirely due to its COVID-19 status.

On June 8, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the recovery of the nation’s last known coronavirus patient. Of the 1,154 confirmed cases, 22 had died. The return of live sports in stadiums with fans standing shoulder to shoulder is a sign of their recovery and their eradication of the virus that has crippled the world. 

It does help that New Zealand is a series of islands with a population of around 4.8 million people, which is about the same as the state of Alabama. But their reaction to the virus is why they can confidently head back into stadiums without masks or social distancing. Nearly three months after closing their borders, initiating a total shutdown of non-essential businesses, and telling people they should only come in contact with the people they lived with, the country is starting to return to normal — and that includes live sports.

Grant Robertson, New Zealand’s sports minister, was on the sidelines to watch the country’s first live, fan-attended sporting event in nearly three months, and he was overjoyed.

"It's massive," Robertson told ESPN. "It's a world first and it's a payoff for all the hard work of five million New Zealanders."

The United States is attempting to bring back live sports without fans as COVID-19 cases are continuing to increase across the country. A future with live games at fan-filled stadiums, or any large in-person gatherings at all, feels a long way off in the states.

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