On Tuesday morning, when she heard the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, under the auspices of Gov. David Ige, had suspended all Hawaii surfing competitions indefinitely due to the novel coronavirus, the news hit hard for local surfers and four-time world champion Carissa Moore.
That meant the cancellation of at least two World Surf League meets — the Jaws Championship Men’s and Women’s Big-wave Competition at Peahi, Maui, and a new championship tour Sunset Open on Oahu’s North Shore — that had been scheduled to open this month.
“It’s too bad, it’s disappointing — we were all so excited and really looking forward to the Sunset Open,” said Moore, the current world titleholder, who last month took second place in the the Maui Women’s Pro by Roxy, which held its finals at Oahu’s Banzai Pipeline on Dec. 20, alongside the finals of the WSL’s Billabong Pipe Masters by Hydro Flask for men.
The Pipeline finals were a positive, hard-won outcome after harrowing incidents during both events: The women’s contest, normally held at Maui’s Honolua Bay, was relocated after a fatal shark attack on a noncontestant; and the Pipe Masters was put on hold for several days after CEO Erik Logan and four other WSL executives tested positive for the virus and self-quarantined for the 10 days recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“We weren’t told to suspend the competition,” Logan said of the Pipe Masters. “I made that decision.”
He said WSL remained confident in its safety protocols, which included regular testing of athletes, staff and others admitted to the organization’s exclusive, spectator-free zones, secured by film permits from the state and city on the beach and in private residences at Pipeline.
In all, Logan said, WSL administered more than 1,100 tests during the Pipe Masters, with a positivity rate of 0.05.
But after holding extensive discussions with WSL staff and officials in the state Department of Health, Department of Land and Natural Resources, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and the governor’s office, DBEDT Director Mike McCartney made the call to cancel all surf meets as Hawaii’s daily COVID-19 case numbers rose.
“The challenge was, the virus keeps changing, with this new variant,” McCartney said. “Its unpredictability was the biggest factor in our decision.”
But it wasn’t the only factor, he added, citing his responsibility at DBEDT to balance the interests of public health and welfare with those of commercial activity and tourism.
“It’s the public-trust doctrine,” McCartney said, noting that Hawaii, unlike California, had never closed its ocean waters to the public during the pandemic.
“The ocean belongs to everyone; so do our beaches, parks, highways. How do we share them in a responsible, reasonable way?” he asked.
While he felt WSL made a strong case that its events could safely go on, he added, the state believed that in a shifting COVID-19 landscape, it couldn’t effectively prevent exposures in its own areas of responsibility, or thought the public trust would be served by “telling people this public space is closed but it’s open for (a commercial activity).”
Logan said he appreciated the discussions WSL had with state and city officials and understood and respected McCartney’s decision; on Monday WSL announced it was canceling its Santa Cruz Pro, which had been scheduled for next month, primarily because of the surge of COVID-19 cases in California.
“There’s no denying there is a surge happening in Hawaii,” he said.
Both Logan and McCartney said their meetings, and a Saturday phone call with Gov. David Ige, who offered state support in helping WSL’s nonresident contestants fly home sooner than they’d planned, had forged a stronger and more collaborative relationship.
Andrea Woods, spokeswoman for the 70-member Sunset Beach Community Association, said she welcomed the suspension. “I’m glad our state is being very thoughtful and consistent in their decision-making regarding the contests,” she said.
Wahiawa resident Mahina Chillingworth, contest director for Da Hui Backdoor Shootout at Pipeline, said she thought the state’s decision was fair, at a time when many local youngsters were barred from competing in sports, including menehune and high school surf contests, due to the pandemic.
“First and foremost, it’s about our kids — some of them want to be pro surfers, and if they cannot play, then we shouldn’t be able to, either,” the mother of two said.
Moore said that as a Hawaiian and a woman, she thought the Sunset Open could have been held like the Maui Women’s Pro and Pipe Masters, which she believed had shown WSL could hold events safely and spread pride and joy in a time of uncertainty and fear.
“It’s been about a decade since there’s been a female (championship tour) presence on the North Shore of Oahu,” she said. “I’m proud to be a Hawaiian surfer and (wanted) to represent my people in our waters again.”
Moore said she wanted the tour to survive for the next generation so that other young athletes from her “small town in the middle of the Pacific” could have the same opportunities she’d enjoyed around the world.
McCartney said that after speaking with Moore, two-time world champ John John Florence, Seth and Josh Moniz and other young Hawaii surfers, he wasn’t worried. “It’s hard for them right now. They got to make a living like all of us, but the future’s going to be in good hands.”