PORT DOVER, Ont. — The frequent roar of motorcycles drowned out warnings from politicians who had called on bikers to sit out their traditional Friday the 13th pilgrimage to this otherwise sleepy Lake Erie town because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The normal crowds, however, which number in the tens of thousands and take over the town, were sharply diminished. Those who did brave the chilly, partially overcast conditions to make the trek, many wearing masks, said they would respect social distancing and other anti-pandemic measures.
“Times are changing, man, so we’re limiting the amount of people in there,” said James MacLeod as he played traffic cop outside a popular store. “Usually, we would just have people flowing through.”
Mark Scott, who rode in from Woodstock, Ont., said he had only missed two runs in the past 15 years. Like others, he noted the absence of street vendors, entertainment, and the drastically reduced number of bikes.
“It’s really quiet, it’s not as many bikes as would normally be here, even on a cold day,” Scott said.
Overall, the scene was a low-key, peaceful bustle, with people sipping on coffee, munching on fast food or standing in line for a T-shirt. Riders, as usual, cruised the main street, this time intermingled with cars.
A recent rally in Sturgis, S.D., one of the largest in the world, was blamed for a sharp increase in COVID cases both in the state and elsewhere. Authorities were hoping to avert a similar problem.
Kristal Chopp, mayor of Norfolk County where Port Dover is located, said the rally is important to the community. At the same time, Chopp said she worried a large gathering could lead to a case spike and prompt further restrictions, but the informal event could not be cancelled.
Premier Doug Ford said he understood the allure of the rally but also urged enthusiasts to refrain from attending.
“Folks, we just can’t have thousands of people getting together right now,” he said on Thursday. “It’s just way, way too risky.”
Michelle Kurtz, who works in an overflow T-shirt store, said many people had come in earlier in the week to pick up their paraphernalia rather than do so on Friday.
“It’s not that they’re staying away from Port Dover, they’re just coming on different days,” Kurtz said. “I’m hoping today turns out to where it’s a slow burn, where it’s not a bunch of people at once (but) this is nothing to compare.”
As he sat on his motorcycle watching the goings on, Bruce Todd, from nearby 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, in west-end Toronto, 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.”