A gathering at the Lake of the Ozarks is bringing tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to Missouri, generating worry that the state’s already fast-growing number of coronavirus cases could spike even higher.
Bikefest Lake of the Ozarks drew about 125,000 people last year. The event, which began Wednesday, bills itself as the largest motorcycle rally in the Midwest. It includes five days of rides, vendor fairs, concerts and stops at area bars and restaurants, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Missouri lifted pandemic restrictions on June 16, at a time when the state had a little over 16,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the three months since then, the total has grown to 106,587. As of Wednesday, 1,739 Missourians have died. Missouri has no statewide mask requirement nor capacity limitations, though several local governments have implemented their own restrictions.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force has raised concerns about Missouri. The task force recommended that bars be closed and dining restricted in Missouri counties marked as “yellow” or “red” zones — meaning they have moderate to high levels of virus transmission. Camden and Miller counties, where Bikefest is taking place, are both in red zones, according the task force letter.
Messages left Thursday with Bikefest organizers and a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Mike Parson were not immediately returned.
Last month, similar concerns were raised before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which brought nearly 500,000 motorcyclists to South Dakota. The rally is seen as a big reason why infections have since surged in North Dakota and South Dakota, along with the return to schools and universities.
Missouri ranks near the top of all states for new cases per capita. Hospitalizations are rising, too. Three of the four highest days for hospitalizations have occurred since last week, according to data from the Missouri Hospital Association.
Camden County reported 186 new coronavirus cases — a 35% increase — over the past two weeks, according to the University of Missouri’s tracking site. Miller County reported a 49% increase with 123 new cases; and nearby Morgan County saw an 82% increase with 99 new cases.
Steve Edwards, chief executive of Springfield-based CoxHealth, which operates several hospitals and health clinics in southern Missouri, said he is worried that Bikefest will increase cases both locally and wherever participants return home.
“These events tend to draw many people into crowded spaces. It’s especially worrisome if participants gather indoors at bars and restaurants which have proven to be high-risk areas,” Edwards said. “It is reckless.”