Even with BB&BBQ officially canceled, the rumblings of riders may impact Fayetteville this weekend

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Here’s something to count on: Despite the cancelation of the official Bikes, Blues & BBQ rally, additional motorcycles will be in the Northwest Arkansas area later this week.

But here’s something that’s far less certain: Just how many extra riders there will be.

Ridership at Bikes Blues & BBQ, which would have started on Wednesday (Sept. 23), is tough to count on a “normal” year. Because it’s not a ticketed event, officials at the Fayetteville-based rally have typically used metrics such as social media traffic, beer sales, aerial imagery and the tonnage of trash collected to gauge year-over-year attendance figures. Estimates have placed attendance at nearly 400,000 riders, spread out over the multi-county Northwest Arkansas area that includes many biker-approved roadways with scenic views.

But as COVID-19 started spreading in the spring and businesses and schools were shuttered, it forced rally organizers to reassess the situation. The rally was called off in mid-June. Tommy Sizemore, executive director of Bikes, Blues & BBQ, said the decision to cancel remains the correct choice. Sizemore said the organization’s board of directors – staffed by local residents and business owners – is responsive to what’s happening here.

“We all live here, work here and raise our families here,” Sizemore said. “The number one question was, ‘What’s best for our community?’ That became an easy decision.”

The call to cancel the rally came before a spike in cases among University of Arkansas students and before the Southeastern Conference scheduled a home football game for the University of Arkansas football team on campus during the traditional rally weekend. The cancellation also came just prior to the decision to move forward with the Sturgis motorcycle rally, the country’s largest such event. Preliminary numbers suggest that Sturgis, which went against established health guidelines of mask wearing and social distancing as preventative measures against the spread of COVID, may have been a superspreader event. The fallout from Sturgis has led other areas to assess the wisdom of having a bike rally, too.

The cancelation of the local rally was not met with universal praise, however. Sizemore said the organization went dark on social media channels following the announcement to ward off negative comments. Meanwhile, several Facebook pages related to riding during the BB&BBQ weekend have sprung up on Facebook, promising to connect riders who will still be coming to the area. What appears to be the largest of these pages, “Bikes with No Blues,” has 2,600 members. Page administrators declined to comment for this story but suggested contacting local businesses to see how a lack of a rally would affect them.

One such bike-related business, of course, is Pig Trail Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle dealership in Rogers runs a rally simultaneously to the one in Fayetteville. They called off their rally after BB&BBQ’s announcement. But comments on Pig Trail’s social media pages decrying the cancelation prompted management there to reconsider their options.

After consultation with health department officials, Pig Trail reversed course, said Kyle Johnson, the dealership’s general manager. The revised event will be different than in years past, Johnson said. There will be distance markers where lines are likely to form, and hand sanitizer will be available in the area. There will be no live music in 2020, and the vendors will be 12 feet away from each other instead of the recommended six.

“We sit on 11 acres with all our properties. We’ve got plenty of space to handle people safely,” Johnson said.

But one thing Johnson isn’t sure of – just like Sizemore – is how many riders might be heading this way. He wouldn’t hazard a guess.

One metric that may be helpful is assessing the crowd volume that comes from the Washington County Fairgrounds, a traditional offsite location for rally events. When BB&BBQ pulled the plug on the 2020 event, the fairgrounds stopped taking reservations for the campground. They pledged to honor the existing commitments but provided three options: a refund, a deferral to 2021 or the ability to stay in the site they booked. Kendall Pendergraft, president of the Washington County Fair Board, said the split has been about 80-10-10, respectively. That means only 10 percent of those originally booked for the fairgrounds will make the trip this year. Those staying will have a far less robust experience compared to previous years. There will be no live music and no vendors, Pendergraft said. It’s just an open field for camping – a setup that’s received the approval of the state department of health.

On Dickson Street, bar owners are tentatively hopeful for a revenue boost. Evan McDonald, a co-owner of Smoke & Barrel Tavern and Prairie Street Pub & Tap, expects additional traffic. Smoke & Barrel has been hit hard by the COVID-related closure and the subsequent limits to in-person capacity after it was allowed to reopen. The extra income from Bikes, Blues & BBQ is needed by many establishments on Dickson.

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“It’s business as usual here. We’ll welcome the revenue,” he said, noting that Bikes, Blues & BBQ is a major driver of business for Dickson Street outposts like his. They’ll welcome everyone they can while also respecting venue capacity restrictions, McDonald said.

The inside of bars hasn’t been the problem, said Dr. Marti Sharkey, a Fayetteville pediatrician and the newly appointed health officer for the city of Fayetteville. Revelers congregating outside of the establishments, however, have been more of an issue.

“Bars want, and need, so desperately to be open,” Sharkey said. “They are going above and beyond the recommendations.”

Fayetteville has increased patrols in the Dickson Street area on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to help alleviate crowds. This policy will be in effect for the Bikes, Blues & BBQ weekend, Fayetteville Fire Chief Brad Hardin confirmed via email. “The fire department generally works with the police department to manage the crowds on Dickson during BB&BBQ. We have no additional plans in place this year as the event was canceled,” Hardin continued in his email.

The additional patrols and the mask hotline are designed to limit large gatherings in the downtown area. And there will be no Bikes, Blues & BBQ-sponsored beer garden in the center of town. But private properties where crowds may gather might be a bigger problem. Riders coming into town from elsewhere might be facing a different situation than the one in their home city.

“I’m worried about them not being aware of the viral load that’s in our community,” Sharkey said, adding that Fayetteville is currently trending in the wrong direction.

Sizemore is hopeful that riders who do show up can enjoy a weekend in the surrounding areas without contributing to the ongoing COVID spread in Fayetteville. He points out that if each of the 2,600 people in the largest of the pro-rally Facebook groups were to arrive in Fayetteville, it would not match the 16,000 who are ticketed to attend the Razorback football game.

But with cases on the rise, and with the impact of the football game unknown, Sharkey suggests doing what she and her family are likely to do: supporting a local business by ordering takeout from their favorite restaurant and otherwise staying inside for the weekend.