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Don't come to Port Dover this summer for Friday the 13th biker rally, Norfolk officials say

Five months ahead of the next Friday the 13th, Norfolk County is telling bikers not to come to Port Dover for the traditional rally.

'The reality is, I think if the weather's nice, they're going to come,' said councillor Amy Martin

The decision to classify Friday the 13th as a non-event will have to be ratified by council next week.  (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Five months ahead of the next Friday the 13th rally, officials in Norfolk County are telling bikers not to come to Port Dover.

Since 1981, bikers have gathered in the area by Lake Erie every Friday the 13th. But the COVID-19 pandemic has altered that tradition, and county officials want people to know as soon as possible not to come to Port Dover on Aug. 13, 2021.

"We have no assurances, while we are doing our best, that we will have a grand number of people vaccinated by then. And having visitors from all over Ontario and the country coming to our location puts unnecessary stress on our health teams, on our residents and on our emergency services," said Sarah Page, chief of paramedic services in a council-in-committee meeting on Tuesday. 

A steering committee of representatives from bylaw enforcement and emergency services — like the fire department, the OPP and paramedic services — recommended that council "use all means necessary to deter attendance and participation."

"The aftermath of a large public gathering, with minimal ability to control physical distancing, mask usage, and contact tracing, will present significant challenges for public health, emergency services, local hospitals and health care providers," it said in a staff report. 

The decision will have to be ratified by council next week. 

U.S. motorcycle rally raises flags

The report pointed to the massive 80th Sturgis motorcycle rally across the border, which went ahead in western South Dakota, U.S., in August 2020. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the rally, resulting in infections in other states. 

The risks and liability to the county and the community service clubs, said the report, would be significantly higher because of the pandemic.

But the county knows that despite its efforts to cancel, some people will still attend.

"The reality is, I think if the weather's nice, they're going to come," said Coun. Amy Martin, who represents Port Dover. 

The even budget includes a total of $146,200 from across different departments, including parks, fire, paramedic services, and operations.

A portion of that money, "if not all" of it, will still be used to deter people from coming out and to control a "hopefully" reduced crowd, the report said. 

Mayor raises option of replacement event next summer

Because the date falls in high season and in warm weather, a council report said decisions have to be made at least 10 to 12 months before then. 

General manager Bill Cridland said staff initially told community partners that a decision would be made in May, but that all factors were now pointing to having it be a "non-event." It's his understanding they agree the decision should be made now.

Regardless of changes to provincial or local regulations, "no further change to the August 2021 event will be considered," the report recommended.

But as the months progress, Cridland said the county will, in fact, review those changes and consider the possibility of pulling limited vendors together in a place like the Elmer Lewis parking lot. 

Mayor Kristal Chopp suggested planning a "Friday the 13th" event next summer, though not on that exact calendar date, to make up for the one being lost this year.

"It might not draw the same crowd, but I think certainly by that point everybody will be itching to get out and hit the road on their bikes," she said. 

Staff said they've been looking at events to "invigorate" tourism in the area. 

The most recent Friday the 13th happened in November 2020, with Chopp telling motorcyclists to stay away out of concern it could be a super-spreader event. The county's medical officer of health said the potential for large crowds was worrisome.

The rally isn't officially organized, but it does have a website. That site also cautioned about the virus's spread, and said Friday the 13th was no exception to events that were being cancelled worldwide. 

The website hasn't yet turned its focus to the August date. 

Washrooms, PPE, vaccine concerns

Since visitors descend on Port Dover from across Canada and the United States, staff say it's "impossible" to predict where people are coming from and how diligently they're following public health guidelines. 

Though COVID-19 vaccinations are being administered, the report said their "availability, uptake and meaningful widespread immunity will not be feasibly reliable" before that Friday. 

Page, chief of paramedic services, said the county has to consider the presence of variants of concern that could pop up between now and then. 

The event would've had to follow COVID-19 restrictions and public health practices, the report said, as well as provincial rules — on allowable services, crowds, physical distancing, and mask or personal protective equipment (PPE) usage — that would depend on how the virus is spreading at the time.

Other concerns would be having sufficient PPE for the event and more public washroom facilities.

Cridland said the planning associated with managing people who do show up despite the event's cancellation will be fine tuned in the coming months, and would take into consideration aspects like washrooms. 

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