It was easy to forget Pottawattamie County’s disproportionately high COVID-19 rates as about 1,500 largely mask-less motorcyclists in July danced and drank across four closed-off downtown Council Bluffs blocks at the first ‘Bikes on the 100 Block’ event of the summer.
The event occurred after its organizers—several local bars and an Omaha-based Harley Davidson dealer, among others—obtained a permit from the Council Bluffs City Council despite pleas from concerned county residents for its cancellation.
The organizers prevailed again in August—this time attracting over 2,000 motorcyclists, including a number of Sturgis attendees on the back-end of their ride. Two days later, hundreds more bikers gathered for a poker run in honor of a former Pottawattamie County Deputy, concluding in another blocks-wide gathering in downtown Council Bluffs.
“The large numbers of people who are gathered together, clearly unmasked, moving in and out of closed facilities … it was our own little mini-Sturgis here,” said Glenn Hurst, physician in the county.
Pottawattamie County has recorded 1,635 positive coronavirus cases as of Tuesday afternoon, while most of the county’s smaller neighbors’ rates don’t exceed 200. The county has a 9.1% positivity rating over the past two weeks.
Vice President of the Western Iowa Labor Federation Jeff Shudak, along with Hurst and other county residents, have called for an end to these events— expressing concern over local health and inconsistent messaging from leadership as large gatherings persist.
After the first bike event in July, Shudak began lobbying Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh and a number of City Councilmembers for the gatherings’ cancellation.
“Throughout the whole month of August, I reached out to three councilmembers and the mayor several times to please not do this,” Shudak said. “We were getting ready to go back to school, it’s crazy that they would allow this to happen.”
Councilmember Melissa Head replied to Shudak’s efforts against the gathering by noting its probable continuation.
“As of now, we have no plans to discontinue. If something changes with the numbers we probably would but right now, since its outside, it’s still a go,” she said before August’s event.
Another councilmember, Roger Sandau, voiced his support for the gatherings over social media when he responded to one of Shudak’s Facebook posts featuring videos of the events.
“None of these people in the videos are forced to be there. If this was a rally to support unions would you be there?” he said to Shudak over social media. “It would be your choice to go or not to just as its everyone’s individual choice.”
Shudak said Mayor Walsh was slightly more sympathetic to his concerns and has continually promised to curb the large gatherings. But they continue.
“I called the mayor after the last [bike night]. He said he was sorry and that was the end of it. And no shit, on Saturday, they had a poker run for a cop here that died and they shut the street down again,” said Shudak.
Fran Parr, a candidate for Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors, said she appreciated Walsh’s attempt at advocating for COVID-19 safety but has been unhappy with the continued disregard for safety during events like bike night.
“It’s very disappointing. In general, I like our Mayor, he’s encouraged people to wear masks, but then to have a bike night with people partying…” said Fran Parr. “It’s been a really mixed message.”
Masks are not currently mandated in Council Bluffs, which has attracted many party-seekers from across the river in Nebraska. Places like Omaha have taken more much stronger measures against the virus, including facial covering requirements and cancellations of large events, leading a number of their residents to come over to Pottawattamie County for more lax entertainment.
“My experience with the Pottawattamie County County Health Department has been one of disappointment in their response, in their willingness to slow the spread of this condition,” said Hurst. “They haven’t made any significant public efforts to limit the spread of this condition. [The city council members] have no respect for the danger of this virus.”
by Isabella Murray
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