Despite delta, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally poised to ride again

Last year's rally was linked to more than 600 COVID-19 infections.

August 5, 2021, 5:33 PM

While a series of high-profile events have been canceled this week due to the looming threat posed by the delta variant, one that last year contributed to hundreds of COVID-19 cases will not.

South Dakota's Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which begins Friday and runs through Aug. 15, is expected to draw upwards of 700,000 attendees. Last year's rally, which took place during the height of the United States' summer surge, had more than 400,000 estimated attendees, many of whom didn't wear masks as they patronized bars, restaurants and concerts.

The downstream effect was tangible: At least 649 COVID-19 cases were linked to Sturgis, including secondary and third-degree contacts.

A motorcycle rider looks for parking outside the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, Aug. 9, 2020.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images, FILE

"The Sturgis rally had many characteristics of a superspreading event: large crowds, high intensity of contact between people, potential for highly infectious individuals traveling from hotspots, and events in poorly ventilated indoor environments," a 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study concluded.

"Such mass events can result in the resurgence of COVID-19 in counties and states even after epidemic control has been achieved through local risk mitigation activities," the authors wrote.

People watch a concert at the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, Aug. 9, 2020.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images, FILE

This year, the CDC has designated Meade County, where Sturgis is located, an area of "high community transmission." The agency recommends that anyone residing in or visiting such an area wear a mask in public indoor spaces.

South Dakota's vaccination rate also trails the national average. As of Thursday, 53% of residents had received at least one dose, and 47% were fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, compared with 58% of and 50%, respectively, of all Americans.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem supports the rally, a major economic driver in the state.

"There's a risk associated with everything that we do in life," Noem wrote on Twitter Wednesday. "Bikers get that better than anyone."

"It's been extremely busy compared to other years so far," said Pete Gold, the owner of One-Eyed Jack's Saloon, a Sturgis-based biker bar. He estimated that at least 100,000 people had arrived in town already.

"There's not one single person here wearing a mask," he added. "These people -- bikers, Trump supporters, South Dakota Republicans -- do not believe in it."

Despite being unconcerned about COVID-19 or the delta variant, Gold said that he and his family got vaccinated because they want to travel internationally, including to Thailand, where he lives for part of the year.

"I suffered through two Pfizers," he said. "I have a lot of countries I haven't been to, so if I don't get vaccinated, I can't go."