The Daytona Beach News-Journal
From bars accessorized with jugs of hand sanitizer to rows of barricades along stretches of Main Street, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in planning the 80th annual edition of Bike Week is evident along its bustling epicenter in Daytona Beach.
At the same time, as the annual influx rumbles into its closing weekend, it’s also apparent that efforts to promote social distancing, the use of face masks and other guidelines haven’t resonated with many Bike Week visitors, who cluster on sidewalks and in bars where nary a mask is seen.
“I ain’t been worried about it,” said Dan Munoz, 52, who traveled with a friend from his home near Chattanooga, Tennessee, to attend Bike Week’s opening weekend.
“I ain’t worn a mask one bit and I’ve never gotten sick,” said Munoz, opening a cold beer at the Boot Hill Saloon on Main Street. “I don’t know too many people who have gotten sick in my neighborhood.”
Although city officials and event organizers offered an encouraging assessment of efforts to promote COVID guidelines, infectious disease experts this week were concerned about the event’s potential to spread the virus.
The epidemiologists urged visitors to follow recommendations related to social distancing, face masks and hand-washing, but acknowledged that such guidelines don’t mesh with the event’s free-wheeling spirit.
“It’s a challenge,” said Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of General Internal Medicine at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “We’re seeing it down here in Miami with spring break. There’s a lot of COVID fatigue going on.
“People are tired of this; they are seeing people get vaccinated. We’re seeing the light at end of tunnel, so there’s a lot of complacency,” Carrasquillo said. “The thing that concerns me is there are much more infectious variants coming around.”
By midweek, Florida had 689 cases of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7, five cases of the P.1 variant, and one case of the B.1.351 variant, which was first seen in South Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Florida leads the nation in the number of cases of B.1.1.7 and the P.1 variant.
At the same time, the state’s daily positivity rate, calculated by using the total number of people tested for the virus and the total number of people who have tested positive, was 5% Thursday. That’s lower than the rates reported earlier in the pandemic, including a peak of 22.75% in December.
The positivity rate in Volusia County on Thursday was 4.1%.
“We’re almost there, but it’s not a time to relax everything we’ve been doing,” Carrasquillo said. “The numbers look really, really positive, but an event like this, where people come, gather and then go back to other parts of the country has the potential to be really catastrophic.”
With 10% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated and 19% having received at least one dose, according to the CDC, the impact of vaccines isn’t nearly significant enough to prevent potential spread in coming weeks as Bike Week visitors return home, Carrasquillo said.
“Where we need to be is at 75%, 80%, 85% and we are nowhere near close to anything near that,” he said. “Eventually the vaccine will be a major factor, but we’re just not there yet.”
‘It is disappointing’
As Bike Week approached, the Daytona Beach City Commission took action to incorporate COVID safety measures into the planning. In January, commissioners voted to issue the permits that allow businesses to temporarily present outside activities during the event that runs through Sunday. In exchange, those bars, restaurants and shops agreed to limit indoor occupancy to 60% during the event.
This week, Mayor Derrick Henry said that he was pleased with the response of the city and the businesses on Main Street, although he conceded that the effort to encourage visitors to follow the guidelines has been less successful.
“We’ve done what we can do,” Henry said. “The fact that people (visitors) choose not to wear a mask; they are making choices. As far as the city is concerned, I’m happy with way we’ve responded and the way the merchants have partnered with us to create as safe an environment as possible.”
Henry said that he was disappointed that more Bike Week visitors hadn’t embraced the guidelines related to face masks and social distancing.
“Quite naturally, as a leader who wants a safe environment, it is disappointing,” he said. “At the same time, I do respect people’s right to make their own individual choice. We have a choice to not wear a mask and a choice to interact with others who don’t wear a mask.”
Efforts to move some motorcycle parking to lots at the nearby Ocean Center has worked to open more space for walking on Main Street, said Janet Kersey, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, organizer of the event.
Likewise, the limit on indoor capacity at bars with outdoor vendors and activities has helped to keep more Bike Week activities outside, she said.
“Most people feel that being in an outdoor environment, in the sunshine and fresh air is a more positive way to attend events,” Kersey said. She compared the scenario to a day at the beach, a situation where face masks also wouldn’t likely be in use.
“If you’re on the beach, enjoying the sunshine, you wouldn’t be wearing a mask either,” Kersey said. “It’s an individual choice. We can’t force them to do it. Everybody has to take their own health into consideration.”
One Main Street merchant was skeptical about how much the measures imposed by the city would do to lessen the risk of a virus that has permeated every aspect of life over the past year.
“If you haven’t had your shots, you’re at risk anywhere you go,” said Rick Sessa, owner of Smokey Joe’s Cigar Bar. “It’s no different here. Either you lock yourself in your house or you come out and have fun.”
‘Not out of the woods’
When considering mass gatherings such as Bike Week, staying at home is an option that still should be considered at this point in the pandemic, said Dr. Mekalla Coudray, of the Department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine.
“Even though the positivity rate is on the decline and we’ve seen some vaccine rollouts, it’s not at a level where can say we have immunity,” Coudray said. “Any event with a large number of people still poses a high risk of transmission.
“Indoors or outdoors you should still continue to wear a mask, maintain a 6-foot social distance, wash your hands regularly,” she said. “All the guidelines still apply. We’re not out of the woods just yet. We still need to engage in safe practices.”
Remaining outside as much as possible is a key factor in limiting risk of virus transmission, said Dr. Kartik Cherabuddi, a specialist for antibiotic resistant pathogen infections and director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at UFHealth at the University of Florida.
“Once people are at indoor places, in restaurants and bars, many of these (COVID health) measures are gone,” Cherabuddi said. “They are no longer social distancing; that’s gone. You can no longer keep a mask on because you’re drinking and eating. There’s a lot of shouting and cheering going on and we know that can continue to spread the virus.”
Outdoors, face masks aren’t necessary as long as one is walking, but they should be used when stopping to talk, shop or wait in line, Cherabuddi said.
“You should be wearing the mask if you’re stationary or indoors for a period of time,” he said. “You might have been exposed and you might not realize it until you’re back at home a week or two later.”
Low-risk activities would include scenic rides in areas such as the Ormond Beach Loop, take-out meals or cocktails with smaller groups of friends outdoors or even in the privacy of a hotel room, he said.
A motorcycle owner who has attended previous Bike Weeks, Cherabuddi said that he would have attended this year’s event and incorporated his recommendations to stay outside, but instead has been too busy managing COVID cases and vaccination rollout issues in Gainesville.
“Helping get people vaccinated and managing cases here in Florida, in Gainesville, to me, is a much more important role,” he said, “but I definitely will back.”
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