SIOUX FALLS, SD – Biker crowds are heading to South Dakota’s Black Hills this week, raising fears that COVID-19 infections could be triggered among the 700,000 people expected to show up at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
The rally, which begins on Friday, has become a haven for those who wish to escape coronavirus precautions. Last year the rally hardly slowed down, with around 460,000 people in attendance. The masks were mostly ditched as bikers crowded into bars, tattoo parlors and rock shows, offering a lesson in how massive gatherings could spread waves of the virus across the country.
This year – the 81st iteration of the rally – is expected to be even bigger, drawing people from across the United States and beyond, despite concerns about the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
“It’s great to see a group of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Zoltán Vári, a rallyman who was settling into his campsite on Tuesday after making the trip from Hungary.
He was eager to get back to riding a Harley-Davidson through the Black Hills after missing last year. Vári escaped US restrictions on tourist travel to Europe by spending two weeks in Costa Rica before heading to South Dakota. He hopes a million people will show up. Typical attendance is around half a million.
The town of Sturgis, usually a sleepy community of less than 7,000, tried to calm things down last year, canceling most of the town-sponsored events and promotions, but hordes of bikers showed up anyway.
“The rally is a monster, and you can’t stop it,” said Carol Fellner, a local who feared this year’s event could spark another outbreak of cases. “I feel absolutely helpless.”
This year the city embraces the crowds. Republican Governor Kristi Noem has blessed the rally and will appear in a charity race. The event is a boon to tourism, generating more than $ 800 million in sales, according to the state Department of Tourism.
The rally comes as other giant summer events – from state fairs to music festivals like Lollapalooza – return to the United States. arena – estimated at 100,000 a night – during their push to the NBA Championship.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally advocates say the outdoors are plentiful on winding highways and in campgrounds where many bikers stay, but contact tracers last year reported 649 cases of the virus across the country. linked to the rally, including one death. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in a published study that the 2020 rally “had many characteristics of a mass-market event.”
Rally enthusiasts felt that after years of riding Harleys, the coronavirus was just another risk. Five bikers were killed in crashes during the 2020 rally, and one fatal crash has already been reported this year.
The attitude was summed up on a T-shirt sold last year: “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.”
But public health experts have warned that the massive rally detonated the virus far beyond those who chose to attend. A team of economists argued that the rally set off a chain reaction that resulted in 250,000 cases nationwide. However, this document has not been peer reviewed and has been criticized by some high level epidemiologists – as well as some bikers – for overestimating the impact of the rally.
While it’s not clear how many cases can be blamed on last year’s rally, it did coincide with the start of a sharp increase in the Great Plains that eventually crescendoed during a deadly winter.
The rally could potentially fuel a new wave of infections like the one currently shattering hospital records in parts of the South, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“I understand how people want to get out of this pandemic – God knows I want it – but the reality is you can’t ignore it,” he said. “You can’t just tell the virus that you are done with this.”
South Dakota’s current case rate is about half of what it was in the days leading up to last year’s rally. Deaths have also dropped dramatically.
COVID-19 vaccines give hope that the rally will not trigger the spread of the virus, but it is not known how many in Sturgis’ crowd were injected. Unlike events like Lollapalooza which required participants to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, precautions at Sturgis are minimal and optional. The biggest step the city has taken has been to allow rally enthusiasts to drink on public property, believing this would spread the bacchanalia in the open air.
Only about 46% of adults in the county that hosts Sturgis are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, compared to 60.6% nationally. Vaccination rates were just as low in the five counties where most of the participants in the 2020 rally were from, according to an analysis of cellphone data from the Center for New Data. Only one – Maricopa County, Arizona – has cracked 50%. Campbell County, Wyoming has the lowest rate, at just 27%.
Vári, the Hungarian biker, said he had been fully vaccinated – but only because he mistakenly believed he needed proof of vaccination to enter the United States
“Sturgis or bust,” he wrote on Facebook.