Despite requests from local leaders to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic, ABATE of Iowa plans to hold its annual motorcycle rally in north central Iowa — a beer and music free-for-all that typically attracts about 10,000 bikers over three days.
It’s the 19th year in Algona for the Freedom Rally, held on a farm the group owns northeast of town. Organizers say the July 2-4 event is a big fundraiser for the nonprofit group, which supports biker safety and training.
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to lift a ban on large events, beginning June 10, made it possible for the group to hold the event, said David Duffy, ABATE state coordinator
“We’re taking all the precautions necessary to make this safe,” he said.
The opposition of local government and health officials to the rally is unusual for Algona, a community of about 5,400 that typically welcomes the riders and the annual cash infusion they bring to grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
The group held the rally for 17 years in Humboldt before moving it one county north to Algona in 2002.
“We have a good relationship with them,” said Algona Mayor Rick Murphy. “The bikers are friendly. They’re fun to visit with. … But this year, everyone is a little more on edge.”
Local leaders worry the event — attracting bikers from across the country — could make Kossuth County a hotbed for COVID-19. So far, the county has seen few cases: Just 32 people in the county of roughly 15,000 had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Sunday, with one hospitalization and no deaths.
“People are a little discouraged that that could all be thrown into the wind,” said David Penton, the Kossuth County Emergency Management coordinator. “We don’t want to be another Florida.”
Nationally, areas where large groups have gathered at beaches, bars and restaurants have seen spikes in coronavirus cases.
Duffy said the 160-acre farm can easily accommodate 15,000 campers, even with space for social distancing added in. And the group is incorporating distancing recommendations throughout the camp — from spacing out the line for beverages and food to urging riders to spread out during the musical performances that run all day and well into the night.
ABATE — or A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education — is encouraging riders to limit the number of trips they take into Algona for food and drink. And the group has asked participants to respect businesses’ limits on the size of groups that can gather in grocery stores and restaurants, said Duffy, adding that it has hired a cleaning crew to help disinfect venue facilities.
On the rally website, the group states that all participants will have to sign a form asking them if they recently have been to a coronavirus hot spot, have had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, or have symptoms themselves. The form says answering yes to any of those questions is grounds for denial of admission, and asks those who are admitted to “do your best to adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines” set forth by the state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But also on the website, the group says that “social distancing is a suggestion by the CDC, not a law. This rally was created and called the Freedom Rally to promote freedom of choice. Attending is just that, freedom of choice.”
Murphy said he and other government officials emailed Reynolds’ office, suggesting she reconsider lifting the ban on large gatherings. Murphy said he heard nothing back.
Without broader state action, local leaders don’t feel they can do much to prevent the event. “It’s a private organization, on private property,” Murphy said. “They have every right to hold the event.”
Kossuth County Supervisor Jack Plathe said some residents wanted the board to cancel the group’s liquor or vendor licenses, but “that would just bring more people into Algona’s bars, grocery stores and restaurants.”
And Plathe said he didn’t feel like he could treat ABATE’s rally differently than other large gatherings, including graduation parties and weddings, that have occurred recently.
Plathe and Penton said Kossuth County is already seeing more COVID-19 cases as the onset of summer has brought people to nearby tourist destinations such as the Okoboji Lakes region, which has seen a spike in positive tests.
Dickinson County, home to Iowa’s Great Lakes, has had 237 cases as of Sunday, the majority of which have occurred since the Memorial Day weekend.
Health officials say they’re encouraging Algona area residents to get groceries and run errands before the bikers hit the area.
Duffy said ABATE is making 5,400 masks available to volunteers and workers at the rally, and will sell masks to others. In addition, it is working with county emergency management to have a trailer on hand in case someone does become ill and should be quarantined.
Rachel Venteicher, an Algona doctor, said the Kossuth Regional Health Center typically has additional staff on hand during the rally to help anyone who may get hurt.
“Our staff prepares for the ABATE rally every year,” Venteicher said. “This year is just a little different.”
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8457.