Despite concerns about large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 250,000 motorcycle enthusiasts from around the country are expected to roll into western South Dakota for the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally beginning Friday and lasting 10 days.
Such a crowd would make it the largest event in the country to take place during the pandemic.
In a survey by the city in May, 60% of Sturgis residents said they preferred to cancel the event. But local business owners who rely on this once-a-year gathering for a huge percentage of their revenues, combined with a realization by city managers that the bikers were going to come to the area no matter what, prompted the city council to sanction the rally.
"The city fathers here wouldn't cancel this rally if it were the middle of World War 7," said Brent Bertelson, who has a home in Sturgis and will be attending his 26th rally this year. He said that "the money the city takes in is a number that Ripley wouldn't believe."
He's not wrong. Sales tax revenue from the rally brought Sturgis, a town of 7,000 people, $26 million last year, according to City Manager Daniel Ainslie.
The event generated $655 million in 2019 across South Dakota, because many of the visitors spend time and money throughout the state as they travel to the rally, and often buy big-ticket items like motorcycles and motor homes while there.
"That's a lot of money for a small state," said Ainslie.
Rod Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip, a campground and concert venue just outside the city where thousands of bikers will stay, explained how critical the rally can be.
"We spend the whole year getting ready to host the motorcycle rally and music festival," he said. "And without it, we wouldn't have a business."
But even though the rally is going ahead, Ainslie noted the city is concerned about COVID-19. It has taken measures both to shrink the event, which normally draws close to 500,000 people, and to mitigate the potential for the virus to spread. It eliminated advertising and canceled parades, events and contests.
During the 10 days, any Sturgis resident who does not want to venture into the crowd can call upon city volunteers to have them shop for and deliver food and other necessities. In the week after the rally, the city will offer mass testing to any resident who interacted with the visitors.
Woodruff said he and other business owners have also taken precautions prompted by the pandemic.
"We will have hand sanitizer everywhere," Woodruff said. "All our food will be takeout. We have signs everywhere reminding people to keep 6 feet apart."
But the Buffalo Chip is not mandating masks. And those familiar with the rally say mask-wearing and social distancing will not be common.
"Those who attend are mavericks," said Joel Heitkamp, a frequent Sturgis attendee and host of a popular radio talk show in the Dakotas. "This is the rebel crowd and they think they are cool because they don't do what society tells them to do."
This attitude might seem fitting in South Dakota, a state that never imposed a lockdown.
"South Dakota is fairly conservative, very independent," said Christine Paige Diers, the former director of the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum. "The same could be said for the motorcyclists. They're an independent lot. They don't want you telling them what you can and can't do."
The age of the motorcyclists is a factor that is both concerning and possibly reassuring. Most of those in attendance are an older demographic -- and more at risk for serious complications from the virus.
"It's not a young person's sport anymore," said Heitkamp. Only half-joking, the rally veteran added, "I'm 58 and if I went this year, I'd be among the youngest people there."
But while an older crowd may be more vulnerable to the disease, Woodruff believes their better judgment will balance those risks. "This is not a college kid crowd. These are mature people, accustomed to having made their own decisions about how to live their lives," he said. "They know what is necessary to calculate and minimize the risks of catching a COVID virus."
Another factor that may minimize the potential spread of the disease is the spread of the land around Sturgis. The hundreds of thousands that come to the rally will not all be in one place. Bertelson pointed out that "the vast majority of people coming here are camping, staying in tents, campers or motor homes. They are all spread out over the Black Hills. And a vast majority of events happen outside."
But in the town itself, Paige Diers painted a troubling picture: "Main Street will be packed with people. Crowds walking up and down the sidewalk, checking out the vendors, looking at the motorcycles. So social distancing would be extremely difficult."
Sturgis itself has not been hit hard by the virus. The city is in Meade County, which has had only one death so far. But this huge gathering comes in a state that had severe outbreaks in meatpacking plants early in the pandemic and that even now is renewing concerns among health officials. According to an internal Federal Emergency Management Agency memo obtained by ABC News, cases are on the rise in the Sioux Falls area with 298 new cases reported in the week ending Aug. 2, a 22.2% increase from the week before.
"You're just adding fuel to a fire," said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and ABC News Medical Contributor. "South Dakota is already experiencing increases in transmission. COVID is not under control in South Dakota; it's just not."
He is worried that gatherings like this, with visitors from different locations, have brought infections back to other communities during the pandemic and Sturgis being located in a rural part of the state should be of no comfort. The rally, said Brownstein, could put a huge strain on an area that "does not have the capacity to handle a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement to ABC News about the rally, "Large gatherings make it difficult to maintain CDC's recommended social distancing guidelines, which may put attendees at risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Any identification of cases following a large gathering would not likely be confirmed until 2-3 weeks after the event."
For Bertelson, such concerns are overblown. "I think people will be cautious," he said. "But rational people informed of the facts are not that scared of this COVID."
He called Sturgis "a freedom rally," adding, "Bikers are big believers in freedom. I've heard from people tired of being locked down and being told what they can and can't do. A lot of these people are saying, 'I'm going to Sturgis.'"
This report was featured in the Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
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