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Amid worldwide event cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic Daytona Bike Week rolls on

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Amid worldwide event cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic, Daytona Bike Week rolls on, despite calls from public health officials for residents to avoid large crowds.

DAYTONA BEACH — Cancellations tied to the coronavirus outbreak tumble like dominoes worldwide, from the halt of international travel from Europe to the United States, to disruptions of professional sports events.

But Daytona Bike Week rolls on, despite recommendations from public health officials that people practice “social distancing” and avoid large crowds where the COVID-19 virus could be transmitted.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday added his voice to the chorus in a press conference at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

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“I am recommending to local municipalities and private entities to strongly consider limiting or postponing mass gatherings in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. He called for the recommendation to extend for 30 days.

Early Thursday, vendors, merchants and bikers had already started to fill the sidewalks on Main Street, where the scent of leather and grilled onions offered a sure sign that the party continues as the 10-day event heads into its closing weekend.

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“We’re a little concerned about it (the virus), of course,” said Denine Priddy, grilling sausages, turkey legs and burgers at Bailey’s Concessions at the corner of Wild Olive Avenue and Main Street. Extra hand-sanitizer dispensers are available for customers as a precaution against the COVID-19, she said.

“We want to make sure we’re doing what we can to keep people from catching and spreading this thing,” Priddy said. “It hasn’t affected our business, so far. We are sticking it out until someone tells us we can’t be here.”

A day earlier, Bike Week concern was briefly heightened when initial media reports stated that a New York resident who traveled to Daytona Beach for Bike Week was among three new presumptive coronavirus cases announced by the Florida Department of Health.

However, it was later learned that the 63-year-old man, who is currently in isolation in St. Johns County, never made it to Daytona Beach, according Susan Cerbone, spokeswoman for the city of Daytona Beach. Cerbone did not respond to a follow-up question from The News-Journal asking whether other people traveled with the man and visited Bike Week.

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At the same time, an estimated 300,000-400,000 visitors are expected in the region for Bike Week during its 10-day run, according to the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, the event’s official organizer.

Even with the shuttering of other major events worldwide, it isn’t the chamber’s place to decide whether to cancel Bike Week activities, said Nancy Keefer, the chamber’s CEO.

“We can’t cancel it. The people are already here. You can’t put gates around the city,” she said. “We help with the permitting, master-planning and marketing of the event, but we don’t control the businesses (that put on the events).”

Bike Week is different from sporting events in that “it’s not at a single enclosed arena. It’s spread out over multiple counties and dozens of venues,” she said.

“People are going to ride down I-95 and U.S. 1. It’s up to the private businesses to conduct themselves the way they choose to conduct themselves. We can’t tell people not to come to Daytona Beach.

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“If Bike Week were two weeks from now and we knew what we know now (about COVID-19) we might have made a different decision,” Keefer said. “The one thing we’ve got going is that it’s outdoors.”

Bike Week is a big source of revenue for the chamber each year primarily through the corporate sponsorships it sells in advance of the event, Keefer said.

“This isn’t about money-making,” she said.

“We’ve been putting out regular advisories (to keep the public informed about the situation) on Facebook and on our website,” Keefer said. “We’ve got to be respectful (about the pandemic), but we also need to be careful not to cause a panic. … We need to lead with facts, not fear.”

Bob Lloyd, the chamber’s board chairman, said, “We’re going to monitor the situation as it develops. We’re going to rely on the public health professionals.”

Keefer said the chamber has liability insurance for its Bike Week Welcome Tent and any chamber activities related to the motorcycle rally.

“I can’t tell you who else has insurance as we don’t manage individual functions associated with Bike Week,” she said.

‘I would be cautious’

Volusia County officials are providing COVID-19 updates online at Volusia.org/coronavirus, said Kevin Captain, a county spokesman.

“The county is working with our tourism agencies, the CVBs (convention and visitor bureaus) in recommending that tourists following the guidelines of the Florida Department of Health and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” Captain said. “I think the county has authority (to halt Bike Week events) if there’s a declaration of a state of emergency.”

Nor is there any plan to pull the plug on Bike Week by the city of Daytona Beach, Cerbone said.

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“The city is continuing to monitor developments in regard to COVID-19 and at this time, there are no plans to revoke any permitting associated with Bike Week,” she said.

In Ormond Beach, where the city doesn’t officially sponsor any Bike Week activities, leaders are keeping an eye on health department updates, said Jenn Elston, city spokeswoman.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and will follow the policies surrounding community events as recommended by the Florida Department of Health and the CDC,” Elston said. “For city events, we will continue to utilize their recommendations as the authority on the matter.”

At this stage in the outbreak, however, even those attending outdoor events with big crowds should take caution to avoid coming to close to others, Dr. Jose Castro, infectious disease specialist with the University of Miami Health System and Miller School of Medicine.

“We are still very limited in the amount of testing being done, so we don’t know to what extent the infection has spread in the community,” Castro said. “I would be very cautious about social gathering, especially if there is close contact among participants.

“There are concerns about transmission for anyone within six feet of someone else,” Castro said. “I’m not familiar with that event, I don’t know how spread out or how close they are to each other. If they are within that six-foot range, I would be cautious about the event. As things are progressing, we have to be more proactive and practice social distancing.”

Many factors need to be taken into consideration in determining the fate of major festivals or events, said Jerne Shapiro, lecturer in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Florida.

“From a public health standpoint, we have to balance risk to the community with individual rights,” Shapiro said. “We need to take into consideration economic concerns, civil liberties and the overall population’s health and well being. All three need to be considered.

“So right now, I think that it’s good to put in individual measures to stop the spread but to just cancel all events in a blanket statement; that is more of a knee jerk reaction.”

‘Nobody’s even talking about it’

Bikers and merchants have been adamant this week that Bike Week will go on.

Tom Caffrey, co-owner of the Pallet Pub on Main Street, said on Thursday that there are no plans to cancel activities at their business.

“It’s not something I’m concerned about,” Caffrey said. “If you’re healthy and use hand sanitizer, the chances of getting it diminish greatly.”

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“Plus, the weather’s supposed to be in the 80s,” he said, alluding to the popular-but-unproven notion that warmer temperatures reduce the chances of the virus spreading. According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not yet known whether weather and temperature impact the spread of COVID-19.

Caffrey said Bike Week so far has been “amazing” for his bar, which opened a year ago in April.

“Nobody’s even talking about it (COVID-19),” he said.

Business also has been booming at John’s Rock ‘N’ Ride, the Grateful Dead-infused gift shop that has been a Main Street fixture for decades, said owner Johnny Sanchez. The store sold-out of its initial run of commemorative T-shirts and had to make an emergency re-fill order, he said.

“Main Street is just go, go, go,” Sanchez said. “It just gets bigger and we encourage that.”

Helen Humphreys, 85, is a longtime Main Street merchant who owns Humphreys & Son Jewelers.

“I’m in the highest risk group, but I feel healthy,” she said. “The way I look at it is we just finished race week with thousands of people and Bike Week now has brought thousands more. They’re already here. It would make no sense to shut it down.”

Although concerned about the potential lingering impact of the coronavirus outbreak on upcoming waves of spring break visitors, Bike Week has unfolded smoothly, said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County.

“What I would suggest and what the hotels have done so wonderfully is to provide stations with hand sanitizer,” Davis said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Everybody’s wiping, cleaning. There are gallons of sprays being used. What will happen with people when they go home, can it spread? I can’t tell you. But our industry is amazing what they are doing.

“Can you tell everybody to go home, if they want to do what they are doing and they feel comfort and secure?” Davis said. “That would be up to them.”

Logistically, it’s too late to stop Bike Week now, said Scott Smith, a tourism professor at the University of South Carolina, who knows the destination from a stint as director of convention services in the early 1990s at the Daytona Marriott, the hotel that’s now the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort.

“The cow’s out of the barn,” Smith said. “You’re knee deep in it.”

It would take a mandate from public health officials, Smith said.

“You have business interests involved, so no one will voluntarily turn off the revenues,” he said. “But most of them also are responsible business people, so if they were to hear something definitively from the state about a risk factor, they will act accordingly.”

The execution of the Bike Week in the face of coronavirus news has impressed Rob Burnetti, general manager of the 212-room Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach Shores.

“Good common sense is what we have to deploy,” Burnetti said. “None of us are experts; none of us know what this is going to do. I don’t want to be perceived as downplaying significance of what’s going on, but you can’t plan for every eventuality. I think it was the right thing to do to have the event.”

Even so, the hotel’s occupancy is down for the month, he said.

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“We didn’t get a ton of cancellations, but people just stopped booking,” Burnetti said. “I guess they were just not comfortable making the buying decision. I think the news is starting to affect people’s decisions over next couple of months, based on what I’m seeing.”

Burnetti is keeping a watchful eye on what happens with the upcoming Welcome to Rockville music festival, a three-day concert event slated for May 8-10 at Daytona International Speedway.

“The full impact will be when we see what happens with Welcome to Rockville,” Burnetti said. “That will test the resiliency of this market. We’ve all seen good pick up in our business with that concert. We’re all holding our breath a bit about what’s going to happen.”

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