Sturgis Motorcycle Rally: A ‘Tale of Caution’ in the Age of Covid-19

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It has been almost a year since Albert Aguirre, 40, was found dead at his home in Vermillion, South Dakota, and Van Balen’s long excursion this week was a celebration of the free spirit and the love of the outdoors from his longtime friend.

But Van Balen won’t stop at South Dakota’s annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which Aguirre attended about a month before he died on September 10 from what authorities have listed as Covid-19.

“Too much risk,” said Van Balen, 42, of the rally, which was attended by 460,000 people in 2020, which infectious disease experts compared to “a wide spread event.”

“It’s definitely an uplifting tale,” Van Balen said of his friend’s death.

In South Dakota, where 59% of the population has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, the health department reported 52 cases per day last week – a peak of 68% from 31 cases by day of the previous week.
Aguirre’s friends don’t know exactly where he got sick. After the rally, he took a trip to Oklahoma and went out to college town where he lived alone. But they wonder if he would still be alive if he had avoided the crowded bars at the Sturgis Gathering and the crowded concerts where few revelers wore masks or stood away from others.

“Everyone wants to be free”

Steve Sample, a 67-year-old land surveyor from Arizona, will attend the 81st Annual Sturgis Gathering. This is his fifth year in a row, and he will be there with his wife, who is vaccinated against Covid-19, he said. He is not.

“I will go there every year until I die, whether Covid kills me or there is a head-on collision,” he said. “I am like this.”

A report by infectious disease experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and South Dakota health officials traced 649 cases of Covid-19 across the country and at least one death until the rally of 2020. The report says the rally’s “true national impact” on the pandemic is likely underestimated.

“The Sturgis gathering exhibited many characteristics of a mass-market event: large crowds, high intensity of person-to-person contact, potential for highly infectious individuals traveling from hot spots and events in poor indoor environments. broken down, ”the report says.

Another CDC report linked the rally to a Covid-19 outbreak in Minnesota, where at least 51 residents who attended the event fell ill, and 35 others were infected after coming into contact with someone. who went to the rally. These 35 people were family, social and professional contacts, he said.

Of those 86 cases, four people were hospitalized and one died, according to the report.

In early September, the Minnesota Department of Health identified the death of Covid-19 during the rally. A spokesperson for the department said the person was in his 60s, had been hospitalized in intensive care and had underlying health issues.

“I didn’t see a single mask on anyone and was there for 10 days,” Sample said. “Everyone wants to be free.”

“There is a risk associated with everything”

As the latest rally proceeded despite opposition from local residents, Sturgis Town Manager Daniel Ainslie said this summer there had been no backsliding.

“We continue to encourage people to say that if they don’t have immunity and if they are in a high risk category, it is probably not wise for them to come,” a- he declared. “And we certainly don’t encourage people who have multiple high-risk categories to attend.”

Sturgis, the South Dakota Department of Health and Monument Health announced this week that Covid-19 self-test kits will be made available to rally attendees. Additionally, Ainslie said, hand sanitizing stations have been installed in downtown Sturgis for months.

South Dakota placed few restrictions on businesses during the pandemic and, at the last rally, there were no state, county or city mask warrants in effect, according to the CDC report.

The state has recorded 14,197 cases per 100,000 population, joining North Dakota and Rhode Island with the highest rates in the country.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem is seen at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month in Dallas, Texas.

Even when cases increased in his state last November, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem refused to impose masks or put in place measures that many other governors have taken to slow the spread. She insisted her condition had been most effective in quickly identifying and isolating cases

The governor is a strong supporter of the rally, saying that in order to organize events like this, people should be provided with information that allows them to protect their health while enjoying their way of life.

Noem, who recently criticized other GOP governors who have passed Covid-19 measures, is expected to attend a charity rally on Monday, according to the Sturgis Buffalo Chip Campground website.
“The Sturgis Rally is all about jumping on your bike and exploring this great country through our open roads,” Noem said via Twitter on Wednesday.

“Bikers come here because they WANT to be here. And we love to see them! There’s a risk associated with everything we do in life. Bikers get it better than anyone.”

“You need less time to breathe this air to be infected”

Rock band Smash Mouth performed in front of a large crowd at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in 2020.

The rally means a lot of money to the local economy, generating more than $ 500 million in sales each year in South Dakota, according to Ainslie. It features drag races, charity rides, rock concerts, pub crawls, tattoo contests, and Harley-Davidson processions through the Black Hills mountain range. A popular t-shirt last year read, “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.”

“People come here because they are free from all of this unnecessary government political control over their lives,” said Rod Woodruff, owner of the Sturgis Buffalo Chip Campground about three miles outside of town.

South Dakota Sturgis motorcycle rally led to Covid-19 outbreak in Minnesota, new report says

Woodruff said he was not aware of a single case of Covid-19 dating back to the rally.

“All these people here… know all the bullshit, all the nonsense that has gone back and forth about how dangerous all these invisible things and viruses are,” he said. “Everyone is aware of all of this and they took the risk of leaving their homes and running away and going somewhere else and spending time with like-minded people.”

Indeed, the dangers of crowding thousands of people into cramped places are well known. The CDC even changed its guidelines last week to recommend that vaccinated people wear masks indoors again.

The dangerous Delta variant has fueled the country’s latest wave and infectious disease experts warn that if more Americans don’t get vaccinated and wear masks, the country could soon see several hundred thousand cases a day.

“People often associate Sturgis outdoors on the bike,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“It makes it hard to imagine why there would be an increased risk of potential COVID transmission. But that’s what is done in Sturgis. It’s indoors, in bars. It’s in lounges. tattooing. It’s in all the indoor activities that really put people at increased risk. “

The rally typically draws 500,000 people to Sturgis, South Dakota.
Osterholm marked the 4th of July celebration which drew thousands of visitors from across the country to the small town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, for holidays and festivities on Cape Cod.
A CDC study released last week indicated that 469 cases of Covid-19 were identified among Massachusetts residents who traveled to Barnstable County – which includes Provincetown – between July 3 and July 17. The cases were associated with “several summer events and large public gatherings. “the CDC said.
About three-quarters of Provincetown’s cases were in fully vaccinated people, a finding that suggests vaccinated people can also spread the virus, including the Delta variant. The results persuaded the CDC to change its guidelines on face masks.

Osterholm said any activity indoors involving crowds put people at risk.

“This means you need less time to breathe this air to get infected yourself,” he said. “Whereas even now what might have been a 15 minute indoor exposure in a given environment may now be only five minutes.”

First known Covid-19 death linked to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is in Minnesota

After returning home to Vermillion after the Sturgis rally Aug. 7-16 and a trip to Oklahoma, Aguirre was found dead at his home in September, according to friends and Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe.

The sheriff said authorities do not know how and where Aguirre contracted Covid-19. No autopsy was performed after a posthumous test came back positive for the virus, Howe said.

“Since coming back positive, this is what we have determined to be the cause of death,” Howe said, referring to Covid-19.

Van Balen and other friends suspect Aguirre of having fallen ill in Sturgis. Some even urged him to stay away.

“We tried to warn him: maybe not go this year. Or if you go, wear your mask,” recalls Van Balen as he celebrated his friend’s life with one last trip. on the road. “But he was living his life. It frustrated a lot of us. He wasn’t one of the lucky ones.”


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