Covid-19 Omicron outbreak: Whaka 100 cancellation 'non-sensical' but health experts say it's necessary

7:35 pm on 28 January 2022

A would-be Whaka 100 participant says cancelling the popular Rotorua mountain biking event was "nonsensical" as a de-facto race will likely take place without safety measures.

The Whaka 100 mountain biking event in 2020.

The Whaka 100 mountain biking event in 2020. Photo: Supplied / Nduro Events / Whaka 100

On Thursday, Rotorua Lakes Council advised the event would not go ahead due to Omicron concerns, with the event due to start on Saturday.

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

Toi Te Ora Public Health said the "bigger picture" was making sure the Bay of Plenty could cope with the spread of Omicron.

But Hawke's Bay-based rider James Pretty said many riders were already in Rotorua and would still likely ride the trails anyway.

"Everyone's got the course downloaded onto their GPS devices and everyone knows the trails.

"Cancelling the event was non-sensical because you'll have a lot of people out there now ... riding in the forest or around without any of the controls Whaka was putting in place.

"If they were closing the forest down to all recreational use, I'd understand it. [But] no one can see an upside to this."

Rotorua mountain biker Scott Taylor said he had spent a lot of time training for the event and was "gutted" the council had pulled the event "at the last minute".

"It's a huge mess for the whole community.

"I understand Omicron is definitely blowing up but as far as I was aware [the event organisers] had it all sorted and [were] able to run it in red.

"It's very weird that the council has pulled the pin and said no especially when [it] said yes to start with."

Bike Culture owner Mike Metz said the cancellation might cause participants to be "gun shy" of signing up for future races.

Yesterday, race director Tim Farmer, who organises the event with Belinda Farmer, said the withdrawal came as an "absolute surprise".

"Our protocols met and exceeded what was mandated."

Whaka 100 race director Tim Farmer.

Whaka 100 race director Tim Farmer. Photo: File / Stephen Parker / Rotorua Daily Post

He said 1800 riders were confirmed to take part, a reduction in light of red light settings from an original 3000.

"This is hugely damaging to an industry that is already under pressure. It sets a precedent where government advice and guidelines can be overridden without appropriate due diligence and in an instant wipe out millions of dollars that flow into local communities for events."

Event spokesperson Paul Gunn said Whaka 100 did not encourage people taking to the forest without safety measures in place and that was why organisers had planned to separate pods of riders.

He said the event's regional events fund application stated Whaka 100 attracted "big spenders" and it was "conservatively" estimated it added $1.5m to the local economy over the event weekend.

About 92 percent of competitors travelled from outside the region to attend, it said.

Rotorua Economic Development chief executive Andrew Wilson said he felt "absolutely gutted" for the organisers and competitors who had invested "a huge amount of time and effort" in preparation.

"Large-scale events like Whaka 100 have significant flow-on effects to our local visitor industry who benefit from the increase in visitor numbers."

Rotorua Economic Development chief executive Andrew Wilson.

Rotorua Economic Development chief executive Andrew Wilson. Photo: File / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post

Lakes DHB chief executive Nick Saville-Wood said his advice was the event had the potential of being "high-risk", but to get specific advice from Toi Te Ora's medical officer of health.

Toi Te Ora medical officer of health Bruce Duncan told Local Democracy Reporting the epidemic was growing, and the local health care system needed to be able to respond to consequences of Omicron.

"Omicron is in the Bay and it is only a matter of time before it spreads further. Events which bring people into the area increase the likelihood of bringing more infectious people, especially if they come from areas with established Omicron."

He said a sporting event cancellation was "always disappointing" but the "bigger picture at the moment is to try and reduce the rate of spread [and] to flatten the curve".

A CNI spokesperson said the pandemic was a "constantly and sometimes rapidly evolving crisis" and it decided to advise the council of its decision on Wednesday.

"The mana whenua take our responsibilities as kaitiaki very seriously. Kaitiakitanga applies equally to protecting and nurturing the whenua and environment as it does to he tangata (the people).

"This decision was not taken lightly and was one where the interests of people were at its heart. We acknowledge the disruption this will have to organisers and the many taking part and their support people."

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

"Given the changing situation of Covid-19 and the context of Omicron in the region, [the] council supports the decision of the forest land owners CNI and mana whenua that, taking a wider community view, the public health risk is too high for the event to go ahead."

Asked if the council looked at the event's safety plans, Pitkethley said it was provided to the council and landowners this week.

"Under red, the forest is open for recreation. Any decision to restrict access to the forest would need to considered by [the council and landowners].

"[The] council appreciates and acknowledges that this will have an impact on more than just the event organisers. Events are important to our community and the district and we are continuously looking at how we can support the ongoing sustainability of events in Rotorua including the Whaka 100."

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

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

There were 105 cases in New Zealand with four in hospital, including one in an intensive care unit or high-dependency unit in Rotorua Hospital.

no metadata

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs