Frank FernandezThe Daytona Beach News-Journal
Rick Sessa, the co-owner of Smokey’s Bar on Main Street and the leader of the Enforcers Motorcycle Club, has a patch stitched to his leather biker vest that reads “Quitters need not apply!”
That sums up Sessa’s attitude about Biketoberfest. He’s not quitting on it despite the coronavirus pandemic. For Sessa, though, the city of Daytona Beach has quit on Biketoberfest this year by denying permits and rule exceptions for the event, in effect banning such staples as bands rocking away on outdoor stages, sidewalk chefs cooking up turkey legs and barely-clad beer tub girls serving up brews.
City commissioners said they throttled back on Biketoberfest due to concerns about increasing the spread of the coronavirus in Daytona Beach. As of Thursday, Volusia County had seen 10,945 people sickened and 252 killed by the virus.
But Sessa said the city’s decision to put the brakes on Biketoberfest is infringing on people’s freedom and hurting Main Street businesses and workers who depend on Biketoberfest for a big chunk of their money. So Sessa is spreading the word on social media, urging bikers to rumble into Daytona Beach for the 28th annual Biketoberfest on Oct. 15 through 18.
“Hopefully, our plan works, which is to get a record attendance and have the bikers say ‘Screw it. We are coming regardless. We don’t care about that. We are going to pack the bars. We are going to have Biketoberfest,’ ” Sessa said.
Sessa is also getting the word out old school by word of mouth with his biker brethren. He urged people to remember the city’s decision at election time.
“The biker community is resilient. We are strong. We don’t give up. We don’t stay home. I think a lot of this is hype,” Sessa said. “I mean I understand if elderly people, people with previous other illnesses, it’s a risk they may not want to take and I’m not going to fault anybody for that.”
And he is not the only business owner urging bikers to ride on in. Leea Murphy, who owns Peanut and George’s Pub on Main Street, is also working social media.
“Absolutely, I’ve been on social media trying to let everybody know, friends and family that are out of state, been posting stuff,” Murphy said, “most definitely.”
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And she thinks plenty will respond.
“The bikers are definitely coming, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she said.
She said people can make their own decisions about the risk.
“We’re adults, if you don’t want to go out, you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t go out, stay home,” she said.
Not all cities are restricting permits
Daytona Beach tried to reign in Bike Week in March as the coronavirus began its dangerous spread in Florida. While 500,000 bikers roared around Volusia County, the city revoked permits for large gatherings on the event’s last weekend.
While Daytona Beach is trying to again limit then number of bikers, Ormond Beach is allowing biker events along its U.S. 1 corridor. Ormond Beach will also consider allowing concerts on a case-by-case basis if the organizers can present a plan to meet social distancing guidelines, said Mayor Bill Partington.
Volusia County is not restricting any permits for outdoor Biketoberfest events, but is urging people to follow guidelines. The county is following a standard permitting process but will also provide a safety plan which will include graphics from the “Step Up Volusia” campaign, said county spokesman Kevin Captain.
“To remain aligned with the governor’s executive order, the Volusia County Council chose not to move forward with adopting an ordinance requiring a safety plan for businesses/itinerants for Biketoberfest events,” Captain wrote.
That is good news for Roger Luznar, the owner of Sopotnick’s Cabbage Patch in Samsula with 5 acres of bands, bike shows and festivities.
“I’m wide open with vendors, bands, everything,” he said.
But COVID killed the coleslaw wrestling.
Luznar said he canceled the wrestling for Biketoberfest because social distancing is difficult while grappling in a pit of shredded cabbage. Social distancing is also tough for the fans who crowd around the pit to watch the women battle. And Luznar added he can’t test competitors like the NBA and the NFL are doing.
“All these people are getting tested every day,” Luznar said of NFL and NBA players. “I’m not testing people to come and coleslaw wrestle to make sure they are OK. It’s not cost effective.”
Luznar said the Cabbage Patch has a big presence on social media but he is not doing anything extra for Biketoberfest as far as advertising.
Sessa thinks that even more bikers might roar into town for Biketoberfest because this year’s Leesburg Bike Fest, which had been rescheduled from April to November due to the pandemic, has now been canceled.
The event was canceled before Gov. Ron DeSantis on Sept. 25 eased COVID-19 restrictions by moving into Phase 3. Sessa and Murphy said now that the governor has eased restrictions, the city should allow Biketoberfest to shift into high gear.
“Now that the mandate is lifted statewide, and from the governor, I don’t understand why the city is not respecting that and disrespecting the businesses in the city that they run and the legacy of the biker community,” said Sessa who added that the city itself is holding a concert at the bandshell on the weekend of Biketoberfest.
A Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band is scheduled for the bandshell on Oct. 17. The city has enacted social distancing and other requirements for the concerts.
But some across the state have questioned DeSantis’ decision and that includes Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry.
“I’m personally not in agreement with the overall tenor of his recent order,” Henry said. “And we respect it, obviously, and we will govern ourselves accordingly, but I believe that people should still wear a mask and we should still physically distance as best as possible.”
Henry said the virus is still a deadly threat and, if it spreads in the community, it could close businesses and shut schools. Parents would be unable to go to work because they’d have no one to watch their kids.
Henry said he has always supported Biketoberfest and Bike Week and he is simply trying to keep people safe.
“These permits are not a right,” Henry said. “They are an exception that the city makes in an effort to work with business to help them be successful.”
“We’ve tried to take a balanced approach,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to do anything that I feel unfairly targets Bike Week or Biketoberfest.”
Henry said Sessa’s drive to pack the town with bikers is not a good idea.
“I don’t believe it’s in any of our best interest for us to be at odds with one another during a pandemic,” Henry said. “We should be working together and not fighting with one another.”
Daytona Beach City Commissioner Ruth Trager said she has nothing against bikers. She said Sessa’s efforts to make it a record-breaking Biketoberfest was not a good idea.
“I think it’s terribly irresponsible and I think it’s very disrespectful of Daytona Beach,” Trager said. “I mean what he’s doing is deliberately putting the residents of Daytona Beach and possibly his friends and neighbors in danger.”
She said making some money is not worth endangering people’s health.
“It is so irresponsible to put other people in danger just because you think you have to make a buck or two,” she said.
She warned Daytona Beach was already at risk of an outbreak from bikers coming from the surrounding events, like in Ormond Beach.
“People would be coming from all over,” Trager said. “They would be coming from hot spots, too. And most of them would not be wearing masks, especially now since you don’t have to, and I don’t think they would anyhow.”
A couple of health experts agreed with the city’s position telling The News-Journal recently that a gathering of bikers in Volusia County could trigger a local outbreak as well as send riders back to their homes with coronavirus as a passenger.
“It’s a recipe for disaster right now,” said Stetson University Associate Professor of Public Health Asal Mohamadi Johnson who believes canceling the event would be safest. “I do not think it’s a good idea to bring this many people from multiple destinations to one little spot.”
If there has been a response to the efforts by Sessa and others to attract more bikers, it may not become apparent until the event itself. That’s because Biketoberfest mostly attracts people from Florida who often wait until the last minute to see what the weather will bring before heading to Daytona Beach, said Bob Davis, the president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County.
Davis said hotels are getting reservations for the event but he could not say whether there were more than usual.
Daytona Beach Police Chief Craig Capri said his department is ready for the crowds, even if they turn out to be record-breaking as Sessa hopes. Capri said his officers have handled huge crowds in the past for Biketoberfest and Bike Week.
Capri also said he would have his usual detail of officers working to keep traffic moving and people safe along Main Street.
Bikers checking out the scenery along Main Street won’t find the usual bartenders in the parking lot of Froggy’s Saloon.
Bobby Honeycutt, who along with his wife, Pamela, owns Froggy’s said he usually has 10 bartenders in his parking lot. But not this time.
“They won’t let us do anything in the parking lot,” he said.
Forcing people inside is not good, he added.
“We are trying to social distance and that’s not going to help. I think it’s going to be worse,” he said.
He added that he is 71 and will wear a mask but he is leaving it up to his bartenders on whether they want to put one on or not.
Honeycutt said his son is in charge of social media and is working to get people to turn out for Biketoberfest.
“Absolutely,” Honeycutt said. “Let them know that we are going to welcome them no matter what the city says and we are not some children that don’t know how to play with other kids.”
He said life must go on.
“We are in a bad situation. We need to deal with it the best we can,” Honeycutt said. “But the world has to go on. And everyone around us is doing it except for Daytona Beach. So why are you snuffing out Daytona Beach. Why are you hurting those people here?”
Sessa of Smokey’s said people can make their own choices.
“It’s a voluntary event,” Sessa said. “Everybody can stay home and do nothing regardless of an epidemic or not. Or you can get out and do things. Businesses have to survive. I mean we are going broke literally.”