Pipeline Masters Kicks Off Amid Virus Concerns
Hawaii’s biggest surfing competition of the year is underway on the North Shore. While the surf is up, so are concerns about Covid-19.
The World Surf League, which organizes the annual event, has changed the format this year to keep the keep the drama, but lose some of the large crowds typically associated with pro-surfing contests.
However that will be easier said than done.
During a recent swell before the competition began, thousands of people flocked to the beaches of North Shore to watch surfers ride waves reaching up to 30 feet high. Many gravitated to the spectacle at Pipeline, where pros and amateurs mingle in the lineup.
Every day around sunset, hundreds of spectators crammed onto sand around Ehukai Beach Park. Very few wore masks and social distancing was non-existent.
That is situation the World Surf League is hoping to avoid at its 2020 Pipeline Masters contest, which began on Tuesday.
“They are basically advertising as a virtual event, so we’re having competitors, but not spectators,” said Michele Nekota is with the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation, which issues permits for surfing competitions.
A representative for the World Surf League did not respond to a request for comment.
Nekota says the group is trying to minimize the number of people who watch the Pipe Masters in person by eliminating announcers and other public attractions that are normally a staple of WSL events.
Mailers have been sent to North Shore households, urging residents to stream the event live from home. The WSL also received approval to close off the section of beach directly in front of Pipeline.
“The main viewing area has been restricted to minimize how many people can actually gather,” says Walea Constantinau, who manages the Honolulu Film Office.
Under Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s tiered reopening plan, filming was declared an essential business in June, so the World Surf League filed a permit with the City and County to operate this year’s Pipe Masters as a film site.
The League was approved to proceed under that plan, but had to incorporate the measures to restrict spectators as well as a physical distancing and COVID-19 testing plan for competitors and support staff.
On the spectator front, Constantiau says the City and the WSL believe that closing a portion of the beach will reduce attendance and allow police and event security to enforce social distancing where spectators do gather.
“I think it gives us the opportunity to focus people in others areas of the beach that are more manageable and enforceable by security,” she noted.
On the first day of competition Tuesday, it was unclear how successful that effort had been.
Because of the beach closure, no one was sitting directly in front of the lineup. Instead, roughly 200 spectators had gathered in a much smaller area, about 100 yards away.
The closure appeared to have unintentionally clustered people closer together, with very few wearing masks.
Most groups appeared to be below Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s current 5-person limit for group size and seemed to be at least attempting distancing.
Professional surfing competitions typically take at least a few days to complete and draw more people toward the final rounds.
If day one was an indicator, crowd control may be a growing challenge.