How one summer hotspot feels about Auckland’s upcoming holidays

Summer is coming and Auckland is breaking free. In anticipation of those escaping to the North, the Herald visited and interviewed dozens of people about the imminent arrivals.

To those escaping Auckland in 10 days – happy holidays. Like everything else right now, expect to attach some elasticity to the term “happy”.

Northland is bracing for your arrival with an expectation of at least 50,000 and possibly twice that will make the journey to your baches, our beaches, campgrounds, hotels and motels.

Some up here will welcome you with socially-distanced open arms. Some are eager for your money. Some recognise you carried a load we couldn’t because of low vaccination rates.

There are also those communities that do not want you. Some are planning to shut the world away and avoid you and everyone until they feel it’s safe to come out. There will be friction. Everyone is on edge.

There’s no guidebook to this. It will be written as summer unfolds, just as the story of this pandemic has been written, with twists in every chapter and cliffhangers loaded with foreboding.

Here, though, is the prologue to that guidebook. The Herald on Sunday was Auckland’s advance party this week,travelling hundreds of kilometres and speaking to dozens of people about how they feel about the border coming down on December 15.

For those coming on holiday, many turn east to the coast where the current roadblock sits and head for Auckland’s bolt holes along beach communities from Mangawhai up to Waipū.

At the Mangawhai Tavern, manager Justin Howse, 48, details preparations, lessons learned from earlier lockdowns and planning for the traffic light system. It’s an insight into just how Covid complicates life. Howse has got together the 30 vaccinated staff who run the tavern and talked through scenarios, attempting to prepare for issues that arise with the vaccine pass.

“It’s going to slow things down. We will have people on the door checking passes. We’ve just got to deal with it. There’s no choice. What else do you do? We can’t operate on click-and-collect. In red, we would be essentially closed.”

The venue holds 300 people but – with traffic light restrictions – will restrict service to 100 diners with spaced tables in an outdoor dining area. Famous for its gigs, that side of business is “up in the air”. Bands scheduled for December have been moved – it’s simply not practical with a choked flow of customers.

For all the complications, Howse exudes an enthusiasm for those escaping the city he called home for 15 years. A former owner of Neighbourhood Brewbar in Kingsland, he says: “I really feel for people in Auckland. We welcome everyone as long as they’re well behaved and treat staff with respect and appreciate my guys are going to be under a lot more pressure than usual.”

And yes, “treat staff with respect” means having a vaccination pass.

In the centre of town, it’s a requirement over which Wood Street Pizzeria manager Damini Verma, 27, is expecting challenges. Like Howse, there have been meetings with staff and plans to stagger arrivals into the breezy, open restaurant and bar.

“We will have some big personality on the door at all times,” she says. “We can’t wait for the border to open to make up for what we’ve lost with the past 100 days.”

Although there are those eager to welcome people in, others are itching to get out. At the town’s surf club, David and Jan Halstead, aged 75 and 74, were walking Harriet, their dog while contemplating a family Christmas in Whanganui. “We’re very anxious that we have to go down there on the 15th,” she said.

Anxiety was a common theme echoed by almost everyone the Herald on Sunday met. Glass artist Sam Minnery, 48, runs through a range of underlying causes. There’s general Covid tension, there’s the divide over the vaccine, arguments on local social media and rifts among family and friends – relationships she says are far more important than the arguments dividing people.

And it’s the shifting, uncertain sands of Covid: “We change from week to week, day to day”. And there’s uncertainty over what dropping the border will mean. “I don’t know if anybody really knows how they feel about it because it hasn’t happened.”

Further up the coast, Langs Beach is a ghost town without Auckland. Ely Backhouse, 18, was taking advantage of a near-empty beach. “Usually now Langs would be filled with people.” She expects December 15 to bring a tsunami of holidaymakers. “It’s going to get slammed.”

Doubled-vaxxed, Backhouse is well across the traffic light system. She works in hospitality ahead of attending AUT in Auckland next year. “You pretty much have to be vaccinated to do anything.” And she’s fine with that.

The Cove Cafe at Waipū is onboard with the vaccine pass as is the Waipū Cove Campground across the road. Summer sees both places heaving with humanity.

Lloyd Rooney, who owns The Cove Cafe and a cluster of other Northland cafes and restaurants, won praise from customers after a thoughtful Facebook post in which he said “regardless of your views of the virus and its impact, let’s try to work together as best we can to minimise a very difficult situation”. He’s trying to work out how to do both – serve the vaccinated in the cafe while operating click-and-collect for those who have chosen not to (or are unable) be vaccinated.

At the campground, manager Anton Trist emailed campers this week to let them know the controlling trust had voted on hosting only those who are vaccinated. As one of the biggest and busiest campgrounds in the North, it hosts around 1500 people. “We know our business is 95 per cent Auckland. We want Auckland up here.”

He’s prepared. His staff are prepared. It’s more work. The stress of Covid is, he says, on par with that experienced a decade ago when managing the Grand Chancellor in Christchurch during the earthquake that destroyed the building.

Trist heaves a sigh. “It will be a different summer.”

How different we don’t yet know. New modelling projects Northland having between 25 and 95 new cases a day by the end of January. The range of numbers represents what happens if it goes horribly wrong or hopefully right.

At that stage, the modelling predicts there will be between 230 and 880 active cases in the community. Between 20 and 70 cases at that time would require hospital-level care and a staged plan to free up beds to meet that level of need. The modelling provides a spread of five-18 patients needing intensive care unit beds. Northland has eight ICU beds which – in the normal flow of things – see about three in use at most times. It won’t take much to buckle or break the system, and there won’t be much capacity to treat visitors who fall ill with the virus.

When the Herald on Sunday asked about borders opening, many replied: “If not now, when?” Others would say: “When we get to 90 per cent”, to which others come back with: “We will never get to 90 per cent.” Projections show two more months should do it. Sceptics point to the ever-diminishing returns.

At Paihia’s foreshore, double-jabbed Freedom Hori, 31, of Kaikohe and Samantha Tutahi, 34, of Waitangi, were enjoying yet another deserted Northland beach. Neither have any enthusiasm over the imminent arrival of Aucklanders on holiday.

“We’ll stay in our bubble,” says Tutahi. “We will try to get everything done before the Christmas season so we don’t need to go to town.”

For Hori, there’s the added concern of her care for an older relative. Auckland wins its freedom at the cost of the North, she reckons. You should see Kaikohe, she says. There are cases in town and no change in anyone’s behaviour.

Health or wealth? Life or livelihood? These arguments have wrestled since the first lockdown. Passenger ferry skipper Jeff Crooks, 58, has felt Covid’s bite on his income.

“It has to happen,” he says of letting Auckland loose. “Our [tourism] industry doesn’t happen without people.” He’s had two shots and can’t see the issue. “All I can say to those who aren’t vaccinated is grow up and think of others.”

Up the road at Ake Ake Vineyard and Restaurant on the outskirts of Kerikeri, Chris Owen, 55, takes a break from the kitchen. His enthusiasm for visitors from the South is balanced with how the traffic light system forced the issue of vaccination. He’s far from convinced Covid is a serious problem – “if it comes, it comes,” he says.

But it meant he’s had to get one jab and will get the second. “Like many people, we’re over a barrel and we’re going to have to bend over and take it to get on with our business.” At the vineyard’s cellar door, Marion Eluga, 55, echoes that frustration. She – like everyone at Ake Ake – has been vaccinated. “The main thing I really dislike is being told if you don’t have a vaccination, you can’t take a wage home.”

There isn’t one Northland. There are many Northlands. Vineyards in Kerikeri and pine forests around Hokianga. Flounder at the Thirsty Tui pub in rural Paparoa and game fishing at Russell.

It is divided in myriad ways – by coast, by wealth, by race, by employment, by a connection to the past and those who have just arrived – and those divides are getting raw with the anxiety of living with a pandemic and all the divisiveness that has come with it.

There are almost 200,000 people in Northland. A third are Māori with the balance shifting towards 50-50 the further North you go. Across the region, Māori are proportionally less vaccinated than anyone else.

Even in that statistic, you see how different communities can be. Predominantly Māori Te Hāpua, the furthest north town in New Zealand, has one of the highest vaccination rates due to a hugely effective Ngāti Kurī-led public health push. At Pawarenga on Whāngāpē Harbour, lessons of the past could be behind higher rates than surrounding communities. A sign at the road to the village tells visitors they are not welcome. At the heart of the village lies a century-old mass grave from the Spanish Flu.

Former Cabinet minister Shane Jones, 62, talks of that historical echo, sitting on his mum’s porch just outside Awanui, north of Kaitāia. Up the road, St Joseph’s Anglican Church’s cemetery has a plot where those who died in that pandemic were buried in unmarked graves.

Further North, in the Kaimaumau wetlands, is an island which is the resting place for Māori who died in the 1830s in one of the first epidemics visited on tangata whenua by the arriving colonists. Across New Zealand, tens of thousands of Māori died in waves of disease throughout the 19th century.

And yet, Jones was eager to see the borders open – bring the tourists, bring the spending, bring the jobs and avoid “the cratering of the economy”. With data showing unvaxed people spread Covid more so than those who have been jabbed, Jones says “the 90 per cent Aucklanders who are vaccinated are arguably less of a threat than the unvaccinated whānau who are here”.

“Bizzare”, Jones reckons, that he’s elevating commerce above health but he worries about the flow-on economic cost on jobs and mental health. In this, like pretty much every other burden the pandemic brings, it’s a weight that will fall heavier on Māori than others.

He rattles off that morning vaccination statistics – of the 22,000 Northlanders who remain unvaccinated, two-thirds are Māori.

There are reasons for this. Some Northland communities are disconnected from society but a connection to society underpins the way vaccines work – it’s the best thing you can do for everyone around you. There is a lack of faith in government – that place down south that only ever comes to take away someone or something.

There is Northland’s demographic skew with a high population of younger Māori that kept most away from the jab until September 1. And there was no allowance for a te ao Māori approach that would have seen whānau vaccinated together, drawing hesitant youth alongside kuia and kaumātua.

These feed a seething frustration visible in former MP and lifelong activist Hone Harawira. And yet, Harawira, 66, is focused on the future right now – specifically, the next few months.

He wanted the borders in place until 90 per cent of Northland was vaccinated. It didn’t work out that way so he’ll deal with what’s coming.

“But I don’t want the Prime Minister to think it’s the right thing to open the borders.”

Police have confirmed that Tai Tokerau Border Control – of which Harawira’s is the most familiar public face – will be at checkpoints alongside iwi representatives to check vaccine passes. The presence of police should ease his concern that an iwi-led response will cause flashpoints of anger.

“I see Jafas, after four months in jail, saying, ‘get the f*** out of my way, Harawira’.” And that swings both ways.

“People are afraid of what Auckland might bring. I can already sense fear in our community. Although with that, there’s going to be quite a bit of anger.”

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