LACONIA — Motorcycle Week Executive Director Charlie St. Clair woke up in a tent Monday at a campground in the Sturgis, South Dakota, area, where thousands of motorcycle riders from across the country are enjoying an annual rally.
St. Clair rode his Harley 1,900 miles from Laconia to Sturgis. He keeps a face covering handy for when he goes inside a business, but notices many others are not taking this precaution.
He is purposely avoiding a rowdy downtown area where masses of visitors have been congregating. Online video from Sturgis — sturgismotorcyclerally.com — shows large numbers of people and motorcycles in an area of vendors, bars and other establishments. Masks are not evident.
Instead of partying downtown, St. Clair went on a 150-mile round trip ride to Devil’s Tower National Monument.
“I’m out here to visit friends and ride my motorcycle,” he said. “We’re all social distancing.
“I’m not hanging out, bumping elbow to elbow with people. I don't do that in a normal year. I’m here to ride as much as I can.”
He hopes that those attending the 97th Laconia Motorcycle Week, Aug. 22-30, will have a similar mindset.
Unlike South Dakota, New Hampshire has a series of rules in place for dining and lodging establishments to follow to promote social distancing, use of face masks and other measures intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s Republican governor, has been using COVID-19 restrictions in other states to lure businesses to relocate to her state. In an online ad, she tells business owners to “grow their company” in South Dakota where government will stay out of their way.
Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer said New Hampshire has been proactive in taking pandemic precautions compared to South Dakota. He hopes those who come here will wear a mask.
“I think anybody not taking personal responsibility, not wearing a mask right now, is cause for concern,” Hosmer said. “It is clear from health officials around the world, we can significantly curtail the growth of the virus by wearing a mask.
“I hope everyone who gathers on Lakeside Avenue, whether it is a busy weekend in the summer or during Aug. 22-30, I hope everyone is wearing a mask. It’s just social responsibility.”
Hosmer said state liquor control authorities will make sure establishments that serve beer, wine and alcohol are adhering to occupancy limits.
Normal event vendors will be missing this year from The Weirs and the Harley-Davidson dealer in Meredith, two places where visitors tend to congregate. Also, center-line parking will not be allowed at The Weirs, again, to limit crowding.
Beyond that, the city is somewhat limited in what it can do, Councilor Bruce Cheney said.
He’s been getting emails from residents saying that many fairs, concerts and other outdoor events have been called off this summer and that Motorcycle Week should be canceled as well.
“I always say, ‘Who canceled those events?’
“In every case, it’s the organizers, not the local jurisdiction. We don’t have the authority. We can refuse permits for vendors, fireworks, outdoor entertainment, and we’ve done so.”
If, as Cheney said, the city doesn’t have the authority to cancel Motorcycle Week, who does? The answer is not clear.
Motorcycle Week Deputy Director Jennifer Anderson said that perhaps Gov. Chris Sununu would have that power. (Sununu has said he believes the rally can go forward in a safe way.)
“Motorcycle Week is a broad term that encompasses a lot of individual events primarily run by private property owners or businesses,” Anderson said. “Who has the authority to tell people not to come to private property?”
She said sponsors of individual events carry liability insurance for those events. For example, her association carries insurance for the three motorcycle rides it is sponsoring. The city holds the actual trademarks for Motorcycle Week.
City Manager Scott Myers said that without the typical Motorcycle Week vendors, food and beer tents and entertainment, The Weirs and the rest of the city will have its usual bricks-and-mortar establishments that have been active all summer and busy during holidays.
The city will be attentive to the possibility of problems, and has done contingency planning, he said.
“We’re not going into this blind,” Myers said. “If there is a need to ramp up staffing, if things look different, we’re going to be responsive and proactive.
“We’re also in regular communication with our partners at the state level.”
Sanford Sadja wrote a letter to city leaders, asking that they pay attention to what takes place during and after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to see what lessons can be learned.
“Of particular value should be actual measurements of possible local COVID-19 outbreaks in the week or two after the Sturgis event to judge the effectiveness of the Sturgis precautions,” Sadja said.
“To learn from the Sturgis experience should be invaluable in any possible consideration of additional preventive measures to be taken by Laconia, or in the worst of outcomes, to even consider the cancellation of the Laconia event if the Sturgis experience may prove to be a public health disaster.”