Eileen Zaffiro-KeanThe Daytona Beach News-Journal
DAYTONA BEACH — Mayor Derrick Henry has said his most difficult decision as the city’s top elected official over the past eight years was made when he pulled the permits for the last day and a half of Bike Week last spring.
He announced that decision the evening of March 13 because it was quickly becoming clear the city and the world around it were in for a tidal wave of deadly coronavirus infections.
Now less than two months before Bike Week is slated to roar back to life for its annual biker party, Henry and the six Daytona Beach city commissioners are about to decide if they’ll approve all the city permits that turn Main Street and Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard into a congested cluster of motorcycles, vendors, bands and elbow-to-elbow visitors.
Wednesday night’s City Commission agenda includes the 131-page Bike Week Master Plan for 2021 that outlines what about two dozen land owners want to do on their property from March 5-14.
The Commission vote on the master plan is normally fairly routine. Sometimes a business or two gets the bad news that they’re disqualified somehow and they’re going to be ousted from the group of bars, restaurants and shops granted special temporary permissions during the 10-day event. But most get the thumbs up.
This year many applicants are nervous as they wait to hear if commissioners will allow the party to go on as it has for 80 years, or if they’ll decide it’s just too risky to let people jam together at beer tubs, outdoor food stands and stages, and T-shirt vendor booths.
It’s not clear how the votes will line up since the mayor and some city commissioners say they haven’t made up their minds yet. But they’ll have to decide as they watch the number of coronavirus cases in Florida and much of the rest of the country surge to new highs.
Daytona Beach Bike Week decision needed quickly
Longtime Main Street property owner Theresa Doan is doing a little nail biting as she waits for an answer from City Hall. Doan owns three Main Street bars as well as a few vacant lots along the beachside corridor she uses for paid parking during Bike Week, and the clock is ticking on decisions she has to make on everything from vendor contracts to hiring temporary employees.
“Planning and preparation take time,” said Doan, who owns Dirty Harry’s Pub, Full Moon Saloon and The Bank & Blues Club. “Doing that during a pandemic takes more time. We desperately need them to make a decision on Bike Week so we can move forward with our plans.”
Doan said she and other business owners along the corridor that runs between the Halifax River and Atlantic Ocean have “a lot hanging in the balance.”
“You cannot overstate the economic importance of Bike Week on Main Street,” Doan said. “It’s a mega event, and we have had it for decades. … The ramifications of not having Bike Week are staggering.”
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That financial worry is especially pronounced now among Main Street business owners since some of them were forced to shut down for the better part of six months last year. And when they reopened, it was in a limited capacity.
The city’s decision not to allow outdoor bars, bands and vendors during Biketoberfest in October was another blow, particularly since surrounding cities didn’t have those restrictions. The same thing could happen if a majority of Daytona Beach city commissioners block the permits again.
‘I’ll forever be on the side of public safety and health’
Henry hasn’t said which way he’s leaning. But throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he has solidly backed measures that make keeping people safe from the virus top priority.
In a News-Journal interview last week, Henry said he’d like to come up with a plan for Bike Week that prevents people from cramming together inside bars, restaurants and shops. He hopes there’s a way to mainly hold the event outside.
“I want to help the businesses, but I’ll forever be on the side of public safety and health first,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what the city and merchants can come up with.”
If he’s not convinced enough will be done to protect people, he’ll be a no vote.
“I don’t want to see bars packed inside and outside,” Henry said. “If I can’t feel we’re doing enough to be safer, I can’t support it.”
During a Jan. 6 City Commission discussion about Bike Week, Henry pointed out that other than during a few short-lived lulls, the pandemic has grown worse and worse over the past year. Things could deteriorate even more by March, the mayor said.
Part of the problem is many people haven’t done enough to keep one another safe, he said.
“More than 380,000 people in this country, just gone,” Henry said, making a reference to the U.S. COVID-19 death toll as of the middle of last week.
City Commissioner Aaron Delgado, who tested positive for the virus last summer, shared Henry’s concerns.
“Things could get worse from a medical perspective,” Delgado said. “I don’t think things have really changed in a medical sense just from the availability of the vaccine for a few people.”
During the Jan. 6 discussion of Bike Week, which Delgado initiated during commissioners’ closing comments, City Manager Jim Chisholm appeared to be advocating for a cautious approach to Bike Week.
“I would hate to think we’re going to take a step that’s contrary to what we’re trying to achieve,” Chisholm said.
Health risks and struggling businesses
Delgado said before he makes his decision, he’s willing to factor in the safety precautions Main Street business owners included in their Bike Week permit applications.
The master plan shows the merchants’ Bike Week proposals incorporate masks, hand sanitizer, hand washing stations, signs promoting protective measures, cleaning products, temperature checks, and social distancing. Announcements can also be made from stages reminding people to wear masks and stay six feet apart.
But that might not be enough to sway City Commissioner Ruth Trager.
“I’m terribly worried about the surge in Florida,” Trager said. “As much as I’d like to help the merchants, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. You can recover from economic problems, but you can’t recover from death.”
Trager doesn’t think most people will have had a second vaccination by early March, and she worries local residents and visitors from other states will jointly create a super-spreader event. The more contagious coronavirus variant that’s starting to circulate in the United States will only make things worse, she said. On Friday the federal Centers for Disease Control warned that the variant could create a new surge in cases in March.
“I’d love so much to do it, but it’s groups of people getting close and you can’t count on people to wear masks,” she said.
Trager and her husband own a bar on Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard that’s closed the vast majority of the time, and she doubts they’ll open the small tavern during Bike Week.
City Commissioner Quanita May has talked to business owners on both Main Street and Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard, and she’s trying to persuade city commissioners to allow a traditional Bike Week infused with health safety measures.
May owns a downtown wellness business off of Beach Street that guides individuals and groups through exercise, dancing and other healthy lifestyle choices. She got choked up talking about other local business owners who rely on Bike Week for a good share of their annual income.
She said a disabled veteran called her and explained that he normally makes money giving people rides during special events through the Lyft service. With tourism down he’s been struggling and could use Bike Week to boost his finances, May said.
“He’s a person who’s trying to earn a living and he hasn’t been able to, and that broke my heart a little bit,” May said. “This event will impact so many little economies.”
She said a man who owns two or three restaurants around Main Street was almost in tears when he told her about the red ink flowing through his businesses.
“They truly are suffering,” May said. “Any plan we put in place, they’ll follow it. They just want the opportunity to survive this.”
She added that it was “painful” last fall for Daytona Beach business owners to watch businesses elsewhere in Volusia County make more money during Biketoberfest because they operated without extra restrictions.
Fight for survival
Last fall’s Biketoberfest attendance was down 50%, and it’s estimated this year’s Bike Week crowd will fall 40% below the usual tally, May said. She’s afraid Daytona Beach businesses will lose some of their customers for good if the city scales back what it allows in March.
“If they lose traction with customer loyalty it’s done,” she said.
What business owners need right away is an answer, even if it’s no, she said. They need to know how to direct their suppliers, employees, vendors, musicians and marketing.
“Waiting and waiting won’t work,” May said. “People are making plans and room reservations now.”
City Commissioner Stacy Cantu is also worried about all of the business owners, bartenders, waitresses, entertainers, security staff and vendors who rely on the money they make during Bike Week.
“In the early ’80s I was a bartender, and I bought my first house with what I made in one week,” said Cantu, who joined the City Commission in November after winning her first race for elected office. “They count on that money.”
And she’d like to keep that cash in Daytona Beach.