COVID-19 puts Dream Cruise at risk, but can you really stop it?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Four young automotive designers sat on a retaining wall in front of a Woodward Avenue gas station and takeout spot the other night, quietly eating chicken fingers and watching cars and representing the future of the Dream Cruise.

It's a peculiar future just now, as cities spar with organizers of an event that has grown beyond most any direction beside north to south and back again. A much-awaited decision is due Monday as the board struggles with two wrenching questions:

Tom Cooley of Clarkston cruises Woodward last week. At least three of the nine cities along the Dream Cruise routes have urged calling it off.

Can you officially hold the Woodward Dream Cruise in the era of COVID-19? And if not, can you really stop it?

Meantime, Alex Fischer, 24, identified a Porsche 356 convertible whose passenger's hat flopped in the breeze, and David Acosta, 26, recognized the distinctive face of a Pontiac GTO.

"Come for the chicken," Acosta said, "stay for the cars," ideally for decades.

Long term, the four friends will become the drivers. Baby boomers can't last forever, even if their 1960s muscle cars do.

Short term, come Aug. 15, they'll be back in front of Saroki's Pizzeria — whatever the volunteers who run Woodward Dream Cruise Inc. decide.

Stuck between a whitewall tire and a curb, the board has to figure out how to fit the country's largest rolling car show and the planet's worst pandemic in a century into the same metaphorical garage.

"The more you talk about it," said board president Michael Lary, "the more questions come up."

Decide to stage the Dream Cruise, he fears, and thousands of drivers will go bumper-to-bumper while throngs of spectators go elbow-to-elbow when they're supposed to be social distancing.

Officially cancel the Dream Cruise, he fears, and thousands of drivers will go bumper-to-bumper while throngs of spectators go elbow-to-elbow when they're supposed to be social distancing.

Either way, the committee is in the peculiar position of urging people to stay away from its own event.

"People think it's an easy decision just to say something is canceled," Lary said. "You can't win no matter what."

At least three of the nine cities along the 10-mile route have passed resolutions urging cancellation. None of them have demanded that the show go on.

"In the end," pointed out Birmingham Mayor Pierre Boutros, "it is the communities that have to manage and police the crowds, not the committee."

Logan Phillips, 26, left, of Farmington Hills; David Acosta, 26, of Royal Oak; Conner Stormer, 23, of Detroit; and Alex Fischer, 24, of Royal Oak lounge on Woodward in Royal Oak last week.

True, Lary said, but the committee doesn't control the avenue, the sidewalks, the drivers or the appreciators of riveting automobiles.

"Our organization primarily produces the events that take place during the cruise on Woodward," he said, and it scratched those in early April: Mustang Alley, the Lights & Sirens Cruise, the play zone for children and so on down the road.

"That on its own cuts out probably half the audience for Woodward Dream Cruise," he predicted. But based on the standard attendance estimates of 1.5 million to 2 million, even a stripped-down, base-model cruise will make epidemiologists twitch.

"I'm not concerned at all," said Fischer of Royal Oak, one of the young designers. He's fit and agile, and if there's safe distance to be kept, he'll keep it.

'To Pontiac and back'

Tom Cooley of Clarkston is 70 and considerably less sprightly, but he has identified the most virus-free place to be on Dream Cruise Saturday: the driver's seat of his diamond white 1934 Ford Coupe.

Like countless others, Cooley has already been making the rounds on Woodward.

Saturdays have been so busy that when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eased off the pedal on stay-at-home orders a few weeks ago, Big Boy pulled a food truck into the lot of the former Pasquale's restaurant and before long there wasn't enough space for a Mini Cooper.

Cooley didn't stop then, and he won't on Aug. 15. He rebuilt the three-window Ford from a rusted shell, and during the Dream Cruise, he never even turns it off.

Typically, he said, he'll make five plodding loops from Pontiac to Ferndale and back, and that will eat up the day. If an attempt at cancellation means fewer cars pack Woodward and he gets to drive a little more, fine.

Top Hat John Jendza of Harrison Township missed the first Dream Cruise in 1995, kicked himself for the next 12 months, and has never missed another. Whether it's sanctioned or not this year, he'll be piloting his yellow 1951 Cadillac convertible.

"I enjoy going out on the morning of Holy Woodward," said Jendza, 73, a classic car collector and appraiser who helps run a St. Ignace cruise that's been pushed back to Labor Day. "I will typically drive the course all the way to Pontiac and back down."

Then he and his friends will park, put up tents on a patch of private greenery, and spend the day appreciating other people's machinery.

"I don't know yet whether that will be possible this year," he said.

Birmingham, for one, has declined to issue any special events permits tied to the cruise. In Huntington Woods, with only half a mile of Woodward frontage, city manager Amy Sullivan said she told the owner of the largest business on that strip not to rent out his parking lot, and he said he willingly complied. Tents along the route are being discouraged, though it's uncertain whether they'll be uprooted.

Tom Cooley of Clarkston put a 350 Chevrolet engine in his 1934 Ford Coupe seen here on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak, Mich. on June 25, 2020.  Cooley spent many years rebuilding the car from the pieces he bought in 1978. The decision on whether the official Woodward Dream Cruise will take place will be made on June 29, 2020.

Randy Booden, the owner of B&B Collision in Royal Oak and a board member when the cruise began, usually rents a car wash on Woodward for the day. He brings in two portable toilets, berths his late father's immaculate 1960 Lincoln, invites friends to fill the nine other slots with their own classic cars, and savors the day.

Royal Oak has sold him permits for $200, a base-level price because he's not charging for parking or hawking alcohol.

This year, he said, "the city never even sent out the forms for us to get our permit. They're not permitting anything."

Instead, he'll probably take a lap in his 1969 Plymouth GTX, drive home, grab a folding chair and walk back to Woodward. He's sure he'll have plenty to look at.

"Even the power going out didn't stop 'em," he said, referring to the massive Northeast blackout that struck two days before the cruise in 2003.

Whatever the committee might do, he said, from encouraging restraint to theoretically scrubbing the mission, it won't keep the gears from grinding.

'The sane thing to do'

Noisy, smelly and relentless, a one-day event at the start that now stretches across the summer, the Dream Cruise has its share of detractors along with the occasional John Deere.

The Magic Bag theater in Ferndale used to invite submissions for scathing messages on its marquee. "World's Largest Redneck Traffic Jam" was a favorite.

In 2020, said Birmingham's Boutros, even some of the cruise's friends hope to see it tap the brakes.

"Many local vendors as well as corporate sponsors have shared concern about participating in the event during the pandemic," he said. The city's withdrawal from hosting events "also has given a reprieve to some of our local businesses that are just starting to reopen and have historically been negatively impacted and had to close during the week of the Dream Cruise."

In Huntington Woods and Pleasant Ridge, the coronavirus has closed community pools and curtailed recreation programs. The Dream Cruise famously began as a fundraiser for a soccer field at Martin Road Park in Ferndale; with organized soccer canceled, a boy in sneakers had the field to himself one afternoon last week.

"With all the other cancellations and sacrifices going on," asked Kurt Metzger, the mayor of Pleasant Ridge, "why the Dream Cruise? Whether it's outside or not, I just don't feel at this time it's a safe and sane thing to do."

Infectious diseases specialist Joel Fishbain, a physician with Henry Ford Health System, said "the suggestion has been pretty consistent that this virus is more effective indoors than outdoors."

That's a bit of encouragement for Dream Cruise attendees, but not a warranty: "I haven't seen any evidence that you can't get infected outside."

Fishbain said he'd like to see data on Florida beaches before the cruise rolls out in mid-August, the better to determine whether spring break and surf can be tied to exploding coronavirus numbers there.

"If you want to stand on the side of the road shoulder to shoulder, everybody should be masked," Fishbain said.

That, social distancing and "good hand hygiene" should make things relatively safe, he said — but hand-washing at the Dream Cruise? There's the rub.

Lary, the Dream Cruise president since February, works as director of special events for Ferndale, one of the cities that asked the cruise to park itself.

"We totally understand the politics and the concerns," he said, "but we're trying to make sure we're doing our job."

Birmingham will lose about $50,000 in sponsorship revenue, Boutros said, and is willing to take the hit.

Fine, Lary said, but what can the cruise do to help nonprofits who won't be able to sell licensed merchandise as fundraisers? What about protecting the trademark from bootleggers who might well run amok if organizers simply walk away? Who would be responsible for first-aid stations and hundreds of portable toilets?

There are income issues for the cruise itself. Questions about how to steer people away. Discussions of public service announcements: who would car-lovers respond to? It all needs to get batted around one more time on Monday — not in a conference room, but via Zoom, thanks to the pandemic.

"All of this is not as important as the concerns about COVID-19. We get that," Lary said. But in a world where people get testy about wearing a mask to Kroger, "people are still going to do what they're going to do."

"We don't control Woodward. Never have, never will," he said. So maybe the only solution lies with something else the committee doesn't control.

Cooney painted his '34 Ford himself, wielding a spray gun in his garage. He installed the small-block Chevrolet V-8 engine.

He'll said he'll show it off on Aug. 15 no matter what, unless ...

Well, no, he said. Nobody who loves a classic car will drive it in the rain.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn