Along the Bagnell Dam Strip in the heart of the Lake of the Ozarks, thousands of motorcycles are tightly parked in the middle of a two-lane highway.
Tourists from across the country have been cutting loose along the historic stretch, known as the “main party hub” of the Missouri resort area, for months—but over the last three days, the highway lined with bars, hotels, and concert venues has been home to one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the Midwest: Lake of the Ozarks’ Bikefest.
Tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts have flooded the area for the annual rally, which started Wednesday, participating in five days of rides, fairs, music concerts, and coordinated stops at local bars and restaurants.
In one video from Thursday night, hundreds of patrons—most maskless—could be seen crowding into the strip’s bars and restaurants, clearly flouting federal social distancing recommendations. And Bikefest is not the only gathering at the lake this weekend. Hundreds are expected to show their support for President Trump at a boat parade taking place across the 92-mile-long lake.
“There are thousands of bikes here. A lot of people here—this weekend there will be even more people,” Dan Ousley, a 51-year-old local who has participated in Bikefest for years, told The Daily Beast. “It’s great to see. Honestly, I think that the COVID-19 thing is a little overblown, to be honest. We made national news for having large crowds, but we just want to live our life.”
Ousley, who is hosting a 15-mile “Bikefest-Trump parade” ride on Saturday that is expected to attract a couple hundred participants, admitted that local residents are “not real big on masks here,” because they don’t want to “infringe on anyone’s rights.”
“Around here, if people don’t want to go out and want to stay home, that’s totally fine. We’re all about freedom here,” he said. “We did the whole stay-at-home order thing and enough’s enough. People have to live and feed their families and life goes on.”
Health experts, however, are concerned that Bikefest, which was attended by 125,000 bikers last year, and the Trump boat parade will lead to a surge in the already fast-growing number of COVID-19 cases in Missouri, a state that even the White House has deemed in danger.
“For mass gatherings like this bike rally, it is very unlikely people are going to social distance. People are going to congregate from all over the country, and it will likely spur a chain of transmissions that has impacts in various different states,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who specializes in infectious diseases, told The Daily Beast. “It will be a major task for public health officials because it is very difficult to track this mobile population.”
The rally comes just weeks after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, a 10-day event that attracted nearly a half-million visitors. The August gathering has since been deemed a coronavirus “super-spreader” event that infected hundreds and killed at least one biker.
But several participants of Bikefest told The Daily Beast they’re not at all worried about the rally becoming the next Sturgis, with one rider insisting that participants “are thinking and acting responsibly as it relates to spreading a virus.”
For Greg Surdyke, the 54-year-old owner of Surdyke Yamaha, whose store is participating in Bikefest this weekend, the ongoing pandemic—which has already killed nearly 200,000 Americans—shouldn’t get in the way of an annual tradition.
Surdyke’s store is just one of the 24 bars and restaurants participating in Bikefest’s passport system. Each participating rider must get their “passport stamped” at all the participating venues to be entered in a raffle for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Surdyke’s store is also handing out free “beer n’ brats” to bikers as they go on a ride that spans three counties.
“Motorcycle riders have one thing in common. They all thrive on freedom, thrills, and camaraderie,” Surdyke told The Daily Beast, adding that he will be participating in the festival on Saturday. “I can assure you 10 times more good will come out of this showing of freedom than will arise from COVID-19.”
Since the state lifted its coronavirus restrictions in June, Missouri has seen COVID-19 cases climb. According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, 1,780 residents have died from the coronavirus and 110,129 more have been infected.
Now among the top 10 states for cases per capita, Missouri is currently battling a daily positive COVID-19 test rate of about 11 percent and an average of 1,000 new cases each day. The state, which does not have a mask mandate and has left all public health decisions up to local officials, has also seen record daily hospitalizations over the last week, according to data from the Missouri Hospital Association.
“As the number of COVID-19 cases in our community continues to climb, we again face a stark truth: This pandemic is not just happening somewhere else—it’s happening here,” CEO Dane Henry of Lake Regional Health System wrote in a July letter.
“Although many are wary of the national coverage and political debate about COVID-19, the fact is there are things you can and should do to protect yourself, your family, and others. Here’s why—we are now seeing widespread COVID-19 cases in each of the counties Lake Regional serves, as well as a recent uptick in the number of patients hospitalized with, and dying from, this illness.”
The rising number of cases has also put Missouri on the White House’s radar, according to a September report by the administration’s Coronavirus Task Force. The task force recommended that bars and some dining establishments be restricted in counties marked as “yellow” or “red” zones,” where there are higher rates of transmission.
The White House also recommended a mask mandate for Missouri—which Gov. Mike Parson publicly rejected.
Among the counties in the “red zones” are Camden and Miller, which cover the Lake of the Ozarks. Combined, the two counties have 1,187 active COVID-19 cases. While local leaders have not yet instituted any official restrictions, the Camden County Health Department has posted over a dozen guidelines for residents, including avoiding gatherings of over 50 people and eating and drinking in bars.
Similar concerns were also raised before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Since the August rally, cases in North Dakota and South Dakota have surged, and experts are still trying to determine the full extent of the event’s nationwide impact.
“The lessons from Sturgis are that this chain of transmission will happen in any mass gatherings and it will have mass consequences,” Adalja said. “So in this case, social distancing, mask-wearing, and screen people entering the bike even would be beneficial. At the very least, anyone that attends a mass gathering should get tested a couple of days after the event.”
But despite pleas for public health officials to beef up coronavirus measures in Missouri, local leaders in the Ozarks have refused to take a hardline approach. In an interview with the Kansas City Star, Lake Ozark Mayor Gerry Murawski admitted that he has been concerned about the ongoing pandemic for months, but does not expect Bikefest participants to wear masks or adhere to other coronavirus prevention guidelines.
“But this is our last event of the year and I keep thinking, ‘Let’s just get through this,’ and then we can quite frankly go to sleep for a few months,” Murawski said. “And hopefully by next year, it’s gone. Probably not, though.”
Murawski and the governor’s office did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. Organizers for Bikefest also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Julie Fowler, a local who has gone to Bikefest for the last decade, thinks this year’s rally is “going to be bigger” than ever before because “people are desperate to get out.”
“It won’t be as big as Sturgis—it never has been. Though I think the organizers would like it to be,” Fowler told The Daily Beast. “But I think people are desperate to get out and also Missouri just passed a no-helmet law and that’s huge for a lot of these bikers. Also, we don’t have a mask mandate at the lake area.”
The 56-year-old is eager to participate in the Trump boat rally with hundreds of other residents clad in presidential paraphernalia. Fowler insisted that since everyone will be in their own boats, “absolutely no one is worried at all about COVID-19.”
“We’re not scared of COVID-19 around here,” said Fowler, adding that she still practices social distancing and wears a mask in public. “Trump supporters, whenever we get together, we just have a good time. We want to live our life. We don’t have to live in fear, we don't want to fear corona.”
But not all residents in the Lake of the Ozarks are unconcerned about the potential consequences of these dual events.
Kim Flynt, a 58-year-old who has lived near the Ozarks for about six years, is very anxious about the huge event—telling The Daily Beast that while Bikefest has been a great way to generate local business in the past, it “seems nuts” to hold it during the pandemic.
“Most of the residents that live here are older adults that can’t afford to get sick,” Flynt said. “If our governor would have taken some initiative and had a mask mandate, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Flynt said she and her husband will stay home this weekend to avoid the crowds.
“I truly have never seen it so packed,” she said, adding that her biggest concern is what will happen to her home after “everyone goes on their merry way.” “They will leave behind the virus at our restaurants, bars, and even grocery stores.”
“The only saving grace is most of the bars will close soon for winter.”