Covid-19 outbreak: Whaka 100 cancellation is ‘absurd’, but health experts say it’s necessary

Whaka 100 2020. Photo/Supplied/Nduro Events/Whaka 100

A potential Whaka 100 entrant has said the cancellation of the popular Rotorua mountain bike event was “senseless” because a de facto race will likely take place without safety measures.

On Thursday, the Rotorua Lakes Council advised that the event would not take place due to Omicron’s concerns, with the event due to start on Saturday.

The council had approved the event on Monday, but revoked it on the advice of iwi CNI landowners, as well as the Lakes District Health Board and Toi Te Ora Public Health.

Toi Te Ora Public Health said the “big picture” was to ensure the Bay of Plenty could cope with the spread of Omicron.

But Hawke’s Bay-based runner James Pretty said many runners were already in Rotorua and would likely continue to hit the trails anyway.

“Everyone has the route downloaded to their GPS device and everyone knows the trails.

“Canceling the event was nonsense because there will be a lot of people now… riding in the forest or the surrounding area without any of the controls that Whaka was putting in place.

“If they closed the forest to all recreational use, I would understand that. [But] no one can see an advantage in that.”

2020 Whaka 100. Photo/Supplied
2020 Whaka 100. Photo/Supplied

Rotorua mountain biker Scott Taylor said he spent a lot of time training for the event and was “emptied” that the council canceled the event “at the last minute”.

“It’s a huge mess for the whole community.

“I understand that Omicron is definitely blowing up, but as far as I know [the event organisers] sorted everything and [were] able to run it in red.

“It’s very bizarre that the council pulled the pin and said no, especially when [it] say yes to start.”

Bike Culture owner Mike Metz said the cancellation could make participants “hesitant” to sign up for future races.

Yesterday race director Tim Farmer, who is running the event with Belinda Farmer, said the withdrawal was an ‘absolute surprise’.

“Our protocols met and exceeded what was mandated.”

He said 1,800 runners had been confirmed to participate, a light reduction in red light settings from the original 3,000.

“This is extremely damaging to an industry that is already under pressure. It sets a precedent where government advice and guidance can be ignored without proper due diligence and wipe out in an instant millions of dollars flowing into local communities for events.”

Event spokesperson Paul Gunn said Whaka 100 does not encourage people to go to the forest without safety measures in place and that is why organizers have planned to separate the groups of runners .

He said the event’s regional event fund request indicated that Whaka 100 was attracting ‘big spenders’ and was ‘conservative’ estimated it had added $1.5 million to the economy local over the weekend of the event.

About 92% of competitors came from outside the region to attend, he said.

Rotorua Economic Development chief executive Andrew Wilson said he felt “absolutely disgusted” for the organizers and competitors who had invested “an enormous amount of time and effort” in the preparation.

Andrew Wilson, Rotorua's Chief Economic Development Officer.  Picture/file
Andrew Wilson, Rotorua’s Chief Economic Development Officer. Picture/file

“Large-scale events like Whaka 100 have significant effects on our local visitor industry flows which benefit from increased visitor numbers.”

Lakes DHB chief executive Nick Saville-Wood said his advice was that the event had the potential to be “high risk”, but to seek specific advice from Toi Te Ora’s medical officer of health.

Toi Te Ora, Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Bruce Duncan, told Local Democracy Reporting that the outbreak was growing and the local health system needed to be able to respond to the consequences of Omicron.

“Omicron is in the bay and it’s only a matter of time before it spreads further. Events that bring people to the area increase the likelihood of bringing more infectious people, especially if they come of areas where Omicron is established.”

He said a sporting event cancellation was “always disappointing” but “the most important situation at the moment is trying to reduce the rate of spread”. [and] to flatten the curve.

A CNI spokesperson said the pandemic was an “ever-changing and sometimes rapidly evolving crisis” and he decided to inform the council of his decision on Wednesday.

“The mana whenua take our responsibilities as kaitiaki very seriously. Kaitiakitanga applies as much to the protection and upkeep of the whenua and the environment as it does to tangata (the people).

“This decision was not taken lightly and was one where people’s interests were at the heart. We recognize the disruption this will have for the organizers and the many participants and their support people.”

Rotorua Lakes Council sports, recreation and environment manager Rob Pitkethley said the council confirmed approval of the event on Monday and decided to ‘reconfirm’ it at a follow-up meeting with owners of forest land and mana whenua on Wednesday.

Rob Pitkethley, director of sports, recreation and environment for Rotorua Lakes Council.  Picture/file
Rob Pitkethley, director of sports, recreation and environment for Rotorua Lakes Council. Picture/file

“Given the evolving Covid-19 situation and Omicron’s context in the region, [the] the council supports the decision of forest landowners CNI and mana whenua that, from a broader community perspective, the risk to public health is too high for the event to take place.

Asked if the council had reviewed security plans for the event, Pitkethley said they had been provided to council and landowners this week.

“Under red, the forest is open for recreation. Any decision to restrict access to the forest should be reviewed by [the council and landowners].

“[The] the board appreciates and recognizes that this will impact more than the event organizers. Events are important to our community and the district and we are constantly looking at how we can support the continued sustainability of events in Rotorua, including the Whaka 100.”

There were seven new cases of Covid-19 in the DHB Lakes region on Friday. These were not listed as Omicron cases.

All seven were contacts of previously reported cases and are in isolation at home or in managed accommodation.

There have been 105 cases in New Zealand with four in hospital, including one in intensive care or HDU at Rotorua Hospital.

*Additional reporting by Maryana Garcia

• “People are afraid”: hotel companies face quiet streets under red
• Rotorua events sector hit as organizers cancel and reschedule
• ‘We’re still open’: Expert says Rotorua tourism needs funding to prepare for return of international visitors