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ST. LOUIS — Tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts from across the U.S. began roaring into Missouri Wednesday for the 14th annual Bikefest Lake of the Ozarks as the state grapples with a rate of new coronavirus cases among the highest in the nation.

The event bills itself as the largest bike rally in the Midwest and includes five days of scenic bike rides, vendor fairs, music concerts and stops at area bars and restaurants. Last year, the event drew about 125,000 people to the area.

“Schools are closed all over Missouri and (Gov. Mike Parson) is letting 125,000 bikers congregate at (Lake of the Ozarks) this weekend with absolutely no restrictions in place. No mask requirement. No social distancing. Bars are fully open. They will spread COVID-19 around mid-Missouri and then take it home,” Pamela Walker, former acting health director for the city of St. Louis, said on Twitter.  

Walker has been an outspoken critic of the state’s coronavirus response.

The state lifted all pandemic restrictions on business on June 16, leaving local governments to pass measures such as capacity limitations, curfews and mask mandates to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, however, has recommended that bars be closed and dining restricted in Missouri counties marked as “yellow” or “red” zones — meaning they have moderate to high levels of virus transmission. The task force’s latest letter to Missouri on Sept. 6 showed 67% of Missouri counties were in yellow or red zones.

Camden and Miller counties, which cover the Lake of the Ozarks, are both in red zones, according the task force letter.

The Post-Dispatch sought comment Wednesday from Bikefest organizers, the Missouri governor’s office, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the Camden and Miller county health departments and the Lake Ozark city mayor. None responded.

Similar concerns about spread were raised before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which brought nearly 500,000 bikers to South Dakota during 10 days over a month ago. Infections have since surged in North Dakota and South Dakota, and the Sturgis Motorcycle rally is being partly blamed along with return to schools and universities.

North Dakota and South Dakota lead the country in new cases per capita over the past week, according to the New York Times database. The two states are also seeing hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 climb to their highest levels.

A study released earlier this month by the Center for Health Economics at San Diego State University estimated that the Sturgis rally led to more than 260,000 new coronavirus cases nationwide and resulted in more than $12 billion in healthcare costs.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have since questioned the methods used to determine the nationwide impact, but agreed that the data show the Sturgis rally led to a spike in surrounding areas.

“The case data show relatively stable trends prior to the event and clear changes around the event, with little reason to believe that the changes in cases could have been caused by anything but the event,” the Johns Hopkins researchers wrote.

The Bikefest Lake of the Ozarks event is being held as the state sees worrisome trends.

Missouri ranks third in the country behind North Dakota and South Dakota in new cases per capita over the past week. Missouri hospitals have seen several days of record daily hospitalizations of over 1,000 patients last week, Missouri Hospital Association data shows.

In the past two weeks, Camden County reported 186 new coronavirus cases — a 35% increase, according to the University of Missouri’s tracking site. Miller County reported a 49% increase with 123 new cases; and nearby Morgan County has seen an 82% increase with 99 new cases.

The central region of Missouri, where Lake of the Ozarks is located, is seeing its highest number of hospitalizations since the pandemic began, according to the hospital association. The region has a 19.3% positivity rate, compared to a statewide average of 10.7%.

The largest hospitals just to the south, CoxHealth and Mercy in Springfield, are also seeing hospitalizations reach their highest in the pandemic with 110 patients between them.

Steve Edwards, chief executive of CoxHealth, said he is worried such a large event will worsen the spread locally and wherever the participants return home.

“These events tend to draw many people into crowded spaces. It’s especially worrisome if participants gather indoors at bars and restaurants which have proven to be high-risk areas,” Edwards said. “It is reckless.”

The Camden County Health Department website lists a dozen guidelines it encourages residents to follow.

One is to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people, and another is to avoid eating or drinking in bars, restaurants and food courts. Last on the list is: “Practice common sense and responsibility.”

Bikefest, however, encourages participants to purchase a “passport,” which they can get stamped by visiting the 24 bars and restaurants on the list. Completed passports — there’s no limit how many — can be entered into a drawing for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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Michele Munz • 314-340-8263

@michelemunz on Twitter

mmunz@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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