Whakarewarewa Forest users are on notice if they don't follow proper lockdown rules, the forest could close.
Concern has been raised that mountain bikers, walkers and runners are pushing their luck with their use of the Redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest during lockdown level 4, amid fears their behaviour is putting them and essential workers at risk.
Between the start of lockdown on Wednesday last week and end of Monday this week, 30 people have gone to Rotorua Hospital's emergency department with mountain biking injuries.
An emergency response unit that helped people who injured themselves in the Whakarewarewa Forest had so far rescued one mountain biker and one runner.
During the entire lockdown period last year it rescued only one mountain biker.
Avid forest user and Lynmore resident Maryann Avery said she was "absolutely and totally hacked off" at the number of people she saw at the weekend driving to the forest or riding in groups to meet up with others.
Her concerns are backed up by other recreational users of the forest who say just because you can use the forest, bikers, runners and walkers need to question whether they should.
Rotorua Lakes Council community wellbeing deputy chief executive Jocelyn Mikaere said in a statement in response to Rotorua Daily Post questions that closing the forest would be considered if people didn't follow the rules.
"Rotorua Lakes Council, along with landowners CNI Land Management Ltd and forest managers Timberlands Ltd, would consider closing the forest should the public be seen to be putting themselves and others at risk by not behaving responsibly or by not following government restrictions."
Longmile Rd is blocked off to traffic with a gate, but Avery said the area at the top of the road at 3pm on Sunday was "chocker" with cars.
"I've never seen Longmile Rd look like that unless there was an event on. It was like Queen St."
She said half of those she saw were riders meeting up with groups of others to head into the forest together.
"All these businesses are at risk and no one seems to give a toss. They all just think it's a bit of a holiday and let's head out into the forest."
Avery, who is recovering from a hip replacement and was taking her daily stroll on crutches, said she stopped 26 times to talk to people she knew - within a 2m distance - while she walked Long Mile Rd over a period of one hour.
"I just want people to be responsible. Fair enough to bike or walk in there if you live close by but don't drive there, wear a mask to be safe and don't go on big distances."
Her concerns were echoed by a Rotorua runner, who wanted to be known only as Rach, and said she could run from home to the forest if she wanted to, but instead chose to be sensible and run a 1km loop around her home.
She said according to Strava - a running app that tracks where your "friends" exercise - there were a lot of people in the forest at the weekend who weren't from the area.
"There's definitely a lot of people who are exercising outside of their neighbourhood bubbles. We don't know where Covid is going to pop up next and we are putting ourselves and others at risk."
STORY CONTINUES AFTER LIVE BLOG
A Lynmore resident, who didn't want to be named, said he was shocked while out for his daily walk on Sunday to see large groups of mountain bikers heading towards the forest.
He said he knew of bikers who were doing big rides, not just sticking to the easy tracks close to entrances.
"Half of Lynmore have electric bikes these days and they're heading right up out the back to the big trails.
"You can't go surfing but because mountain biking doesn't appear to be on the list of things you can't do, people are taking advantage of it. I'm just worried lockdown is being treated like a Saturday ride and it shouldn't be like that."
Lakes District Health Board emergency department head Dr Suzanne Moran said despite 30 people needing their help since the start of lockdown for mountain biking injuries, the numbers were lower compared with what they normally saw.
"However, our weekend staff commented that the injuries they are seeing are generally from people who are not accustomed to mountain biking and are using more-difficult tracks. Several admitted to using grade-three tracks and haven't biked for several months."
Rotorua Mountain Bike Club first response unit operated by Peak Safety spokesman Erin Eggleston said the unit encouraged people to observe social distancing, not use the drinking fountains, and ride the easiest tracks in the grade-two and three range.
He said the unit was operating on call from home on 0800 WHAKA1.
"As riders we appreciate the opportunity to get out in the forest over this time. We are relying on people to respect the privilege and keep it chill."
The forest seemed a lot quieter yesterday when the Rotorua Daily Post visited about noon, with 20 bikers seen in 20 minutes entering the forest from Longmile Rd and 18 bikers in 20 minutes entering the forest from the Waipa car park. There were few cars in the area.
Mountain Bike Rotorua co-owner Tak Mutu said it was quiet at the Waipa carpark end of the forest on Sunday.
"What I did notice was how well behaved people were being, they were social distancing, going to opposite sides of the road or pulling right off trails and standing by to let others past.
"There was a lot of anxiety last time, but it's almost like now we know we can be nice to each other and be friendly."
Mutu said every local should be grateful for the forest.
"It's amazing how good being around trees and the forest can be for your brain and I just hope that people aren't abusing it ... Whether it's walking, running or mountain biking, it's not about going out to train for a marathon, it's about getting out and keeping your mind and body healthy."
Police were not able to answer specific questions on whether they were patrolling the forest area, but there was a checkpoint operating south of the Hemo Gorge roundabout on State Highway 5 before the Waipa mountain bike carpark yesterday.
The Rotorua Daily Post also witnessed a patrol car driving around the Waipa carpark.
Yesterday Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins clarified the rules around driving for exercise, saying it was acceptable to drive to a nearby spot for exercise "if they can't exercise right beside their home within walking distance".
"But they shouldn't be travelling miles to go to the beach or to somewhere that's a long way away."
Mikaere also confirmed only people who lived in close proximity to the forest should be accessing the walking and biking trails.
"We want to encourage people to take this situation seriously and not put themselves or others at risk. Everyone needs to work together to help stop the spread of Covid-19 by following the alert level guidelines.
"Activity that's not necessary, including driving, puts others at risk, including emergency services staff if you have an accident or injure yourself. The last thing we need to do is add pressure on our essential services."
She said the main access point parking areas at Titokorangi Dr (Longmile Rd), Waipa and Te Pūtake o Tawa were closed.
"We are continuing to monitor the situation with our partners including the owners of the forest. We expect the public to act responsibly, including being mindful of other users, and follow government instructions. We want the forest and other green spaces to continue to be a space where people can safely exercise while alert level 4 is in place."
She said the council was taking an encourage-and-educate approach while people got used to being in alert level 4 again.
"However, people who choose to consistently ignore the rules that are in place to keep the community safe, will be referred to the police, who have the power to enforce alert level 4 restrictions."
A mountain biker in Taupō who fell on a bike track on Saturday and had to be winched out by rescue helicopter now faced enforcement action for breaching restrictions, police said.
Forest and reserve rules
• Access by foot or bike – do not drive to the forest
• Do not meet up with others – stay in your bubble
• Stick to areas where you are able to easily stay 2m from anyone
• Be mindful of other users
• Ride and exercise safely and within your ability
• Tell someone where you are going and take your mobile phone