For the 700,000 people expected to descend upon South Dakota’s Black Hills for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the slogan for this year’s event after a year of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns is: “We’re spreading our wings.”
“People want to escape,” said Jerry Cole, director of rally and events for the city of Sturgis, S.D., “and they’re escaping to South Dakota.”
But as coronavirus cases are rising due to the highly transmissible delta variant and millions who remain unvaccinated, there is concern among health officials, residents and even attendees that one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies, which begins Friday, could become the latest superspreader event at a time when the resurgent virus is ripping across the United States.
The 81st annual motorcycle rally comes a year after roughly 460,000 attendees shunned masks and social distancing at an event that researchers associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “had many characteristics of a superspreading event.” At least 649 COVID-19 cases were linked to Sturgis, but the true total was obscured as contact tracing was difficult after bikers returned to their home states.
Although Sturgis’s coronavirus case numbers are relatively low, the CDC has designated Meade County, which includes the city, as an area of “high community transmission,” advising residents or visitors to wear a mask in public indoor spaces. About 37 percent of Meade County is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, and more than 47 percent of South Dakota is fully inoculated as of Friday.
Christina Steele, a spokeswoman for the city of Sturgis, told The Washington Post that the city is offering coronavirus tests, masks and hand sanitizer stations for anyone in town, but there is no mask mandate in place. The city has also signed off on a temporary open container ordinance in an effort to keep people outside instead of inside crowded bars. Steele said those who are not vaccinated or have health conditions are putting themselves at risk, but the virus has not been a talking point among those who’ve flocked to the Black Hills.
“The people visiting have said they come from states that have been in lockdown for so long and they just want to have a normal summer vacation without the worries of last year,” Steele said. “People here don’t want to talk about COVID. They want to have a good time.”
Local clinics are still offering vaccines to attendees who want to be vaccinated, including Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose shot, she said. It can take weeks for a vaccine to strengthen a person’s immune system.
The concern over the surge in Sturgis has not stopped Jeff Stultz from making the nearly 1,800-mile ride from Fayetteville, N.C., to go to the large rally for the first time. Stultz, 58, is vaccinated, but said his wife was recently infected at an event in Dallas despite also being inoculated. Neither he nor his wife will be wearing a mask, he told The Post, because he thinks that the vaccine is the ultimate defense against infection.
“I believe the vaccine really makes a difference,” said Stultz, the national director of Broken Chains, a Christian recovery motorcycle group. “The pandemic is horrible, I’m not someone who doesn’t believe that. I don’t want to get COVID, but I’m not going to quit living my life when I’m taking the precaution that will save me.”
In nearby Rapid City, S.D., doctors are expecting a busy week of trauma cases related to the rally, and one fatal crash has already been reported. The surge in COVID cases from the delta variant poses another formidable challenge for the already stressed hospitals, Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Rapid City Hospital, told “CBS This Morning.”
“This could be a superspreader,” Kurra said. “We don’t want it to be, but that is the reality.”
Despite the potential for a surge in coronavirus cases, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, R, has given her blessing to the motorcycle rally. The governor is supporting the large crowds expected for a 10-day event that generates $800 million in sales for the local economy, according to South Dakota’s Department of Tourism.
“Bikers come here because they WANT to be here. And we love to see them!” Noem wrote on Facebook this week. “There’s a risk associated with everything that we do in life. Bikers get that better than anyone.”
But some residents in the city of roughly 7,000 are concerned that this year’s event, expected to be considerably larger than the 2020 edition, will lead to a jump in cases.
“The rally is a behemoth, and you cannot stop it,” resident Carol Fellner told The Associated Press. “I feel absolutely powerless.”
The Sturgis rally is the latest large outdoor event to take place during the fourth wave of the pandemic. Weeks after the Milwaukee Bucks won their first NBA championship in 50 years, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services identified almost 500 people who contracted COVID after they celebrated with a sea of thousands of mostly maskless fans outside the stadium. In Illinois, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has asked the roughly 385,000 people who attended the Lollapalooza music festival to get tested for the virus. Those who went to the four-day festival in Chicago had to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test from the previous 72 hours.
Similar screening precautions are not happening for motorcycle attendees at a rally that features rock and country music performances from ZZ Top, Kid Rock and Clint Black, among others. Matt Farris, a Nashville county artist performing during the rally, said in an email that it’s been a dream of his to perform in Sturgis. He said he believes that the health and safety guidelines in place in Sturgis would be enough to prevent a potential superspreader event.
“It’s called the land of [the] FREE for a reason and I think we all agree on that,” he wrote.
Rod Woodruff said that many out-of-town visitors have thanked Noem and Sturgis for giving them a place to go that lacks many of the COVID-19 restrictions in other cities. Woodruff, 75, is celebrating his 40th year as president of the Sturgis Buffalo Chip, a campground that hosts a concert series during the rally that serves as “a tribute to true American freedom.” He told The Post that events like the motorcycle rally and Lollapalooza were examples of people rejecting politicians and health officials who have tried to curb the surge in cases in recent weeks.
“I expect that when you have a virus and a pandemic that is expanding, you’re going to have increased numbers whether we have a party here or not,” Woodruff said to The Post.
For Stultz, the estimated 80,000 miles he had ridden on a motorcycle felt like more of a risk than attending the Sturgis rally. Seventy miles outside Sturgis on Friday, Stultz said he brought coronavirus tests with him in case he feels any symptoms or needs to quarantine. He’s hopeful others at the rally of hundreds of thousands of people will be as cautious as he is, even if he isn’t sure that will be the case.
“The biker community thrives on freedom. I know there will be those ignoring the precautions and I hate that,” he said. “I believe we should all do our part. The world is a tough enough place without COVID.”