As hundreds of thousands flocked to rural South Dakota for a motorcycle rally this month, sparking fears of a coronavirus super-spreader event, photos captured people crowding the streets without masks and packing local businesses – including a bar on Main Street, One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon.
Now state health officials say a person who visited One-Eyed Jack’s for about five hours has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and could have transmitted the virus to others at the time.
South Dakota health officials expressed little alarm about the case and others confirmed among rally attendees at a Thursday news conference. Four days after the event finished, they said they are aware of fewer than 25 infections among people who attended in the 14 days before illness set in. That includes some cases reported from outside South Dakota.
They also acknowledged, however, that they do not know the extent of the exposures and cannot track them down, saying they put out a public notice about One-Eyed Jack’s because the infected patron could not detail the people they were in close contact with. Experts nationwide have focused on bars as places ripe for spreading the coronavirus, and with symptoms taking as long as two weeks to show up, the health consequences of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally are still emerging.
The event’s true impact may be impossible to track, said Benjamin Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association. For every case that’s identified, there are probably many more that South Dakota officials will never hear about: the people who never got tested but passed the virus on, the people further down those chains of transmission who will never be linked to the rally.
The person at One-Eyed Jacks, Aaker said, is “someone whom state health officials would be wise to be watching and trying to contact-trace. Now are they going to be able to do that with the motorcycle rally … with folks so close together and not knowing who’s there? I don’t know that they’ll be able to contact trace very well.”
“And that’s one of the big problems that we will be experiencing the next 10 to 14 days” after the festivities end, Aaker warned.
The motorcycle rally, a 10-day extravaganza held every summer, draws people from around the country. With the novel coronavirus still rampant in many parts of the United States over the summer, most Sturgis residents polled by the city were against holding the rally from Aug. 7 to Aug. 16.
But the rally is hugely important to the local economy, and authorities went ahead. They asked visitors to social distance and wear masks, but did not mandate those precautions at one of the biggest public gatherings of the pandemic.
Preliminary data suggests the pandemic did little to depress turnout. An attendance count is still in the works, but according to Sturgis, 462,182 vehicles were counted entering the city limits over the course of the event, representing just a 7.5% dip from last year’s traffic.
“It was a good rally,” said Christina Steele, a spokeswoman for the city of Sturgis. “People had fun.”
While some residents expressed concerns during the rally to the media, decrying the absence of masks, Steele told The Washington Post the city has not gotten many comments from residents, beyond her own chats with a couple of people who said they felt attendees were “relaxed and happy to be there.”
“It could be one or two, could be more,” Steele said of coronavirus cases linked to the event. “But you know, it’s to be expected. Coronavirus is in South Dakota. It has been for months.”
The state health department has released information on two people with coronavirus who were at the rally – the two cases, according to officials, where authorities couldn’t work with the infected individual to determine close contacts.
On Aug. 14, they announced that an employee at a bar in nearby Hill City had tested positive and could have passed the coronavirus to others while working Aug. 9, 10 and 11 from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Then, this week, they announced the exposures at One-Eyed Jack’s. The person visited the saloon from noon to 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 11 while they were able to transmit the virus, a news release states.
State health officials did not say where the One-Eyed Jack’s visitor is from or how many people they and the Hill City employee might have exposed at the bars or at the broader rally. The South Dakota Department of Health did not immediately answer follow-up questions about those and other rally-linked cases after Thursday’s news conference.
Officials say they are doing contact-tracing to the extent possible and urging people who might have been in contact with those infected to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days.
The state’s coronavirus dashboard shows that new known coronavirus cases in Meade County, which includes Sturgis, have risen sharply since the rally began, though daily cases remain in the single digits. Average new infections have ticked up slightly in South Dakota as a whole over the past two weeks.
On Monday, the latest day for which data is posted, the county reported a record of nine new cases. The day before the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began, it reported two.
Aaker, the head of the state medical association, said that a rise in new cases was probably seeded before the rally. He’s bracing for a statewide surge in cases as kids return to school, and is pleading with parents to make sure their children wear masks to the classroom. South Dakota has not mandated mask-wearing among students, and many of the biggest school districts have not made it a policy.
The state medical association urged people arriving for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to mask up, wash their hands and social-distance. Aaker says he didn’t attend.
But “from what I saw on the news,” he said, “we could have done better.”