The rumbling can be heard from miles away.
Thousands of motorcycles have converged around the Lake of the Ozarks, where local officials are bracing for more than 100,000 visitors for the 14th annual Bikefest Lake of the Ozarks.
The event is one of the last and largest of the season in the lake area. Lake Ozark Mayor Gerry Murawski said in years past they’d see about 100,000 bikers spread over the entire lake area over five days of events, scenic rides and concerts.
“It’s usually not that bad,” he said Thursday. “This year, I don’t know what to expect. There’s nothing that’s the same.”
The event started Wednesday and was expected to grow in size through the weekend. By Thursday, bikers packed into bars and restaurants along the Bagnel Dam Strip in Lake Ozark.
Hundreds of bikes were parked in the center turn lane of the town’s main drag. Only a handful of the tourists that crammed into town were spotted wearing masks. There are no limits on mass gatherings in this part of the state. And though larger cities like Kansas City and St. Louis have mandatory mask orders, few places around the lake are requiring face coverings.
The mayor said he hopes everyone wears masks when appropriate, but he realizes that’s not likely to happen.
“Bikers don’t wear masks,” he said. “It’s just that’s the way they are.”
The festival follows South Dakota’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. With nearly a half million visitors, the 80th annual gathering was deemed a coronavirus “superspreader.” One study estimated the rally added more than 250,000 virus cases across the United States.
“Any type of mass gathering will be difficult for contact tracers, and it’s going to be more difficult if the people you are trying to trace are mobile,” Amesh Adalja, an infectious-diseases doctor at Johns Hopkins University, told McClatchy News.
On Wednesday, Camden County reported a total of 745 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic — up from a total of 541 at the beginning of the month. Neighboring Morgan County reported 220 total cases on Wednesday, an increase from the 118 total calculated on September 1.
The Lake Ozark mayor says he has been concerned about the pandemic for months.
“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.”
By Thursday afternoon, bars like Tuckers’ Shuckers and High Noon Pub & Grill were booming, with crowds spilling over to tents, sidewalks and parking lots. With 70s and 80s classic rock blaring on loud speakers, a street vendor sold $5 shots and $1 hot dogs while a group of bikers walked down the sidewalk carrying open cans of Busch Light.
While they converged at the touristy Bagnel Dam Strip, motorcycles have swarmed across the wider lake area. They sat in front of lakeside bars and they followed school buses on windy two-lane roads. They were at the outlet malls and they occupied the parking lots of nearly every motel and hotel in the towns surrounding the lake.
“I love it,” said Vance Scovel. “We heard it might be a couple hundred thousand by the weekend.
He and his wife Cindy rode about 350 miles — he on a motorcycle, she on a trike — from their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to attend the weekend’s bike festival. They planned to attend a parade, tour hilly back roads and complete the festival’s passport program, which takes visitors to various restaurants, bars and shops for a chance to win a new Harley Davidson.
The couple attended Sturgis last month with no problems. They said they’ve taken some safety precautions but said they mostly felt safe at the lake.
“I know I should be wearing a mask,” Vance Scovel said, “but I’m not too concerned about it.”
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