In a summer defined by canceled events, one end-of-season party is still happening — the annual Milwaukee Rally Labor Day weekend at area Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealerships.
The reunion of sorts for Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders draws crowds to Milwaukee ever year. While around 100,000 descend upon the company’s hometown in anniversary years, attendance is smaller and less predictable in off years like this one.
In many ways, the Milwaukee Rally 2020 will be just like other years. Motorcyclists will ride into town. Five dealerships will welcome riders with parties, show off fancy new bikes, and host live music to celebrate the company’s 117th anniversary.
But these are no ordinary times. The coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,100 in the state, continues to spread. Health officials continue to discourage gatherings of any kind that could spread the virus.
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- Annual Milwaukee Rally Labor Day weekend end-of-season party is still happening
The last big rally in South Dakota — the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — has been linked to cases of COVID-19 in at least 11 states, including Wisconsin, according to the Washington Post. A Minnesota biker who attended the rally has since died of COVID-19, the Post reported Wednesday.
More than 400,000 people attended the rowdy South Dakota rally Aug. 7 to 16.
Just how many people will take part in the Milwaukee Rally Sept. 3 to 6 is unknown. Six spots across the region are marked as official rally locations in Milwaukee, West Bend, Oconomowoc and Kenosha.
Even during a pandemic, riders just can’t imagine not going to the rally.
“You’re always going to see that gathering — no matter what’s going on,” said Anne Zube, the president and CEO of female riders group Stilletos on Steel. “Socializing is a big part of riding for us.”
Some dealerships like Uke’s in Kenosha downsized plans this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of welcoming thousands for a long weekend of activity, Uke’s is only hosting rally events for one day.
At Uke’s Sunday, the dealership set up a track for the Mayhem Boonie Bike Race.
“With COVID, we’re more conservative,” said Brenda Ulicki who oversees marketing and events.
House of Harley-Davidson on Layton Avenue in Milwaukee has scaled down its plans, too.
“This hasn’t been a good year for anybody,” said House of Harley’s president and owner Jeff Binkert about sales during the economic downturn. The dealership will host vendors and live music through the weekend. It will host a ride to benefit the War Memorial Center Thursday.
“They’re looking for something to get out of the house,” Binkert said about the weekend. “This gets motorcycle enthusiasts out on their bikes.”
Events that bring out bikers are big business for Harley, which has struggled in recent years. Bike sales in the U.S. have dropped for five straight years for Harley.
Harley-Davidson is not hosting any Milwaukee Rally events this weekend.
“For the remainder of 2020, Harley-Davidson is adjusting support for any remaining dealer-led activations at regional consumer events in ways that align with public health and safety guidelines and encouraging socially distant riding through its United We Will Ride global campaign,” a spokesperson for the company said.
The Harley-Davidson Museum will be open for self-guided audio tours, dining at Motor Bar & Restaurant and shopping in the gift shop.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Harley-Davidson is preparing for even more people to come to its events this year with longer hours and doubling the number of food vendors.
“There is nothing else going on and people want something to do,” said Rachel Burden, the dealership’s marketing and events manager. “It’s great riding weather. We think it’s going to be bigger and better than it’s ever been.”
The dealership hosted around 15,000 people per day during the rally last year, Burden said. Attendance at bike nights this summer has increased from around 150 people last year to almost 800, she said.
Wisconsin Harley-Davidson is spacing out vendors across its property, adding hand sanitizer stations, hiring a cleaning crew and a security guard at the entrances to the dealership to enforce the statewide mask mandate.
To encourage masking, the dealership is holding an online mask of the day contest for prizes.