ALGONA, Iowa — Thousands of bikers from all over the Midwest are expected to descend on the town of Algona, population 5,000, for the annual ABATE Freedom bike rally. With no mandates for masks or strict social distancing, residents in the town are concerned there will be an uptick of COVID-19 cases.
"It makes me sick," said Tara Brandt of Algona. She has parents in their 70's, one with an underlying health condition. "I've heard that they're going to bring in 10,000 people. That's going to double the size of Algona in just days."
According to the organizers' website, "social distancing is a suggestion by the CDC, not a law. This rally was created and called the Freedom Rally to promote freedom of choice...we have been in close communication with the county health department and the Algona area and we have the support of the area to hold our event this year."
"Somebody has to be the first," said organizer Jeff Hoker. "People are going to make their own minds up to decide what they're doing and what they're not doing...at this point, I think most of the people who come here have been together and they camp together."
The Freedom Rally is scheduled to be held July 2-4 at the ABATE Freedom Park, a campground open area. A week before the event, Kossuth County Emergency Management Coordinator, David Penton, sent a reminder to residents that they need to "stay vigilant against the virus." He encouraged residents to shop before the rally to limit exposure to people that come from out of the area. Penton also encouraged mask wearing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Right now, Kossuth County has 32 coronavirus cases.
Residents like Brandt are concerned an influx of people in the area during the spread of COVID-19 will endanger the community. One resident who spoke to Local 5 on the condition of anonymity said that he's upset residents' health isn't being taken into consideration as county officials allow the rally to take place.
"So my freedom to safely go to the grocery stores, or even live safely in my community is potentially sacrificed for a "big freedom" party," said one man. "It's so ironic, it's laughable."
Brandt told Local 5 that she believes this week's ABATE event is going to be larger than in previous years because many other motorcycle rallies were canceled. ABATE has been hosting the Freedom Rally for the last 35 years, 19 of them in Algona.
According to ABATE organizers, attendees will be required to fill out a COVID checklist and sign a release before entering.
The release asks participants three questions about travel, exposure, and symptoms related to coronavirus. Organizers write on the release that by signing, the participant agrees to "do your best to adhere to all COVID-19 guidelines set forth by the CDC and the State of Iowa while inside our park."
"The Freedom Rally is just that," said Hoker. "I think our entire organization is based on the freedom of choice, and that's with the helmet law...we want to give people a choice on what they want to do. If we didn't do this, it would go against everything we stand for...we understand that some people aren't going to like it, but somebody has to be first."
Last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds extended her proclamation for a state public health emergency related to coronavirus, which includes guidance for mass gatherings like rallies. The governor mandated the "gathering organizer must ensure at least six feet of physical distance between each group or individual attending alone," and that the organizer implement "reasonable measures under the circumstances of each gathering to ensure social distancing of gathering participants, increased hygiene practices, and other public health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 consistent with guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health and, for any food service, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals."
Penton said that while he understands the concerns from residents about the rally, there's not much he can do.
"Legally, there's nothing I can do," said Penton. "But I don't want to become the next Florida, the next Buena Vista. But unfortunately, there is no legal authority to stop it."
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