By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
LACONIA – The lead organizer of Laconia Motorcycle Week said he is getting unfair pushback from “some” in the community who are concerned about the upcoming 97th rally, rescheduled here from June to Aug. 22-30 due to the pandemic caused by COVID-19.
“I hope that they are as concerned about the whole summer and upcoming Labor Day as they are about Bike Week,” said Charlie St. Clair, executive director of Laconia Motorcycle Week Association.
Gov. Chris Sununu told the press last week that he has created a task force of state and city officials, and event organizers to help make sure the nine-day rally goes off “without a hitch” and does not become a super spread event of COVID-19, but St. Clair said he does not yet know who is on the task force with just 11 days to go.
And City Manager Scott Myers said neither he nor his police or fire chiefs have been told who is on this task force, but he did say the governor’s office gave Mayor Andrew Hosmer a call last week to say that a group would be formed.
The New Hampshire rally is considered the nation’s oldest and among the nation’s three largest motorcycle rallies, which could bring tens of thousands to the state to see old friends, ride the back roads in groups, and attend events.
Rich DiPentima, who retired from working in public health in Manchester and for the state, and formerly served as acting state epidemiologist, said he has concerns for any mass gathering at this point.
“The virus is in charge, not us. Until we realize it this is where we are,” DiPentima said.
“Usually this event attracts 100,000 people,” DiPentima said of Bike Week. “Any time that number of people are coming from everywhere…masks not going to be the uniform of the day, you have trouble. Rhode Island and Massachusetts are now seeing increasing COVID cases and a lot of people could be coming from there.”
He is also concerned about Black Lives Matter marches, the recent NASCAR event in Loudon and the cancelled re-election rally for President Donald Trump in Portsmouth should that be rescheduled.
One goal of having the rally this year rather than canceling is to keep the 100th in June 2023 as many have already made plans for that historic gathering.
St. Clair is currently in Sturgis, S.D., for the nation’s largest motorcycle rally – it’s 80th – and said he is wearing his mask when in public when not riding, is staying away from the Main Street which is “totally packed” and practicing social distancing as best he can.
But photographs of the event in western South Dakota, which features concerts by ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd and others show no signs of people wearing masks or social distancing. There are a few hot selling T-shirts this year, like the one which reads “Screw COVID, I went to Sturgis.”
A member of the Sturgis Hall of Fame, this is St. Clair’s 44th time riding out there and back on his motorcycle, a 2,150-mile journey one way using back roads, mostly Old U.S. Route 20.
He said there are many differences in what he is seeing at Sturgis now and what the state of South Dakota has done to prepare for the event and that which is already in place for Bike Week in New Hampshire.
South Dakota also has a Republican governor who has taken a largely hands-off approach to the event as it relates to the pandemic, despite concerns of the town’s 6,627 residents worried that the rally there could become a “super spread” COVID-19 event.
St. Clair said the only concerns he encountered was a roadblock in the Native American lands of Rosebud when he put on his mask, had his license plate checked, and said he would not be stopping in their community, “which I understand and respect,” he said.
Sturgis looks just like it always does, St. Clair said. But Laconia won’t look like your typical Bike Week, he said.
He said New Hampshire differs in that city and state officials will not allow outside vendors, centerline parking on Lakeside Avenue and there will be limited capacity in indoor venues at 50 percent, “and I’m good with it,” he said.
“South Dakota has done nothing like that,” St. Clair said.
In Laconia, he said, the organization has hired a firm to spray material on the sidewalks, railings, and tent walls that kills the coronavirus. They will be offering sanitizer and will encourage mask use while not riding.
Myers said no group or individual has asked for a mask ordinance for the event but he has received a number of written concerns from individuals that a 2020 Bike Week could lead to a spike in cases of COVID-19 in the state.
He said that like many communities that host large summer crowds, like Hampton Beach and even North Conway, there are crowds already present from other parts of the region and this event will be limited by capacity.
“There is only a certain amount of space,” he said and the lack of vendors and events at the Weirs will likely not lead to large gatherings.
“Obviously, we plan to be nimble and reactive,” Myers said.
Traffic on Lakeside Avenue will include cars this year. There will be signage to discourage travel on Scenic Road, where residents have petitioned to close it for issues of noise, and the hope will be that people use Tower Road to exit the Weirs and get out and drive around and enjoy the state, Myers said.
He said it was his understanding there is still some lodging availability in the area but he said it is impossible to know how many people will come and from where.
Myers said it was his understanding that there would be a conference call with Sununu’s convened task force at some time but neither he nor his two chiefs of police and fire know when that will be.