Officials report Nov. 13 motorcycle rally as manageable

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What if they threw a Friday the 13th motorcycle rally and nobody came?

On a nice day like last Friday, that would have been little more than a thought experiment in the past.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered reality in ways no one could imagine six months ago. So it was in Port Dover on Nov. 13 with a motorcycle rally with the poorest attendance for a reasonably pleasant day in recent memory.

“I don’t think we’re going to get too many motorcycles,” Norfolk CAO Jason Burgess said over the noon hour during a sign inspection on Highway 24 at St. John’s Road.

At this location was one of three large, solar-powered electronic signs that Norfolk County posted on the major approaches to Port Dover. The sign warned that public parking was unavailable in town and that all visitors were to respect COVID-19 protocols related to social distancing, hand sanitizing and face masks.

This was a part of the county’s messaging designed to discourage a large turnout in Port Dover. By mid-afternoon, Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp said she was satisfied the day was unfolding with a minimum of concern.

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“I think everyone is being respectful,” Chopp said. “And where there are line-ups, people are wearing masks. I think our messaging was a success.”

Friday the 13th motorcycle rallies in Port Dover — population 6,000 — have been growing in popularity since their inception in 1981. The rallies pose a challenge from a public-health standpoint because it is not organized. Rather, it is a spontaneous event determined by the calendar.

Rallies in the summer in recent years have drawn nearly 200,000 visitors and 15,000-plus motorcycles, placing it among the largest rallies in North America.

Norfolk OPP estimated 600 motorcycles passed through town on Friday.

Motorcyclist Bruce Todd of Cayuga said he planned to keep mostly to himself. He wanted, he said, to be mindful of fears over COVID-19.

“I want to respect the townspeople, so I’m not going to walk around, I’m going to sit here by myself,” he said.

Neil Smith, from Etobicoke, said he and his buddies just wanted to hang out. Everyone was mindful of the COVID situation, he said.

“Keep a distance, put on a mask if you get close to somebody and just don’t cough on somebody,” Smith said, adding he planned to stay until they decided to leave or got kicked out, “whichever happens first.”

Bill Cridland, Norfolk’s general manager of community and emergency services, was on the ground early Friday morning. Along with the signage, Cridland said steps taken to discourage congestion in the core included the closure of all municipal parking lots, the withholding of permits for transient vendors and hawkers, and an absence of port-a-johns throughout the town.

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Cridland, Chopp, Burgess, OPP and firefighting and paramedic representatives scheduled conference calls for 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. (if necessary) to discuss next steps in case crowding in downtown Port Dover got to the point where COVID-19 protocols were impossible to observe.

At 3 p.m., Burgess said activity in downtown Port Dover didn’t warrant extreme action. He said some line-ups outside businesses were a little congested, but nothing that a word to the wise from law enforcement couldn’t resolve.

“Zero,” Burgess said of the possibility of a shutdown. “There’s not enough people to say it’s posing a safety issue.”

Cridland said the county management team was prepared to barricade roads and deny access to town if crowding became an issue, the fear being a situation like this might serve as a coronavirus super-spreader event for the rest of the province.

— With files from Canadian Press

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