STURGIS, S.D. — And just like that, the roar of the motorcycles was gone.
Ten days after Sturgis, South Dakota., drew hundreds of thousands of bikers from all over the country to its signature motorcycle rally despite concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, the parties ended and most of the crowds headed home Sunday.
Uncertain still was what effect, if any, the event will have on the spread of the virus. Because of the time it can take for symptoms to appear and the way coronavirus cases are tracked in the United States, officials may never know whether the annual rally was a place where the virus was widely passed along.
There were no immediate signs that the rally had led to a significant uptick: The county that includes Sturgis has reported 104 coronavirus cases during the pandemic, 33 of them since the start of August. On Monday, state health officials said they knew of one case of the virus in someone who had attended the motorcycle rally, according to The Rapid City Journal. And Mark Schulte, president of Monument Health Sturgis Hospital, confirmed that some people in Sturgis for the rally had tested positive for the virus, though he would not say how many.
But if a flurry of new cases were to emerge — days from now or even longer — they would likely be reported by attendees back in their hometowns, and would not necessarily ever be tied to the rally.
It is a challenge that public health officials have faced repeatedly as they try to understand how the coronavirus is making its way through the country: When people gather for a large event and then return to states with different health departments, it is difficult to be sure whether the event was part of an outbreak.
The issue has stymied certainty about how the virus’s spread has been affected by events like a rally for President Donald Trump in Oklahoma, protests in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd, holiday weekend visits to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and spring break trips to Florida.
The rally in Sturgis, one of the biggest regional events to proceed amid the pandemic, drew attention from all over. More than 350,000 vehicles had flocked into the small town during the first week of the event, according to the South Dakota Department of Transportation.
“It’s more than we anticipated by far,” said Dan Ainslie, the city manager of Sturgis.
Local officials had set up precautions — hand sanitizing stations and capacity limits inside some buildings. But many people went without masks, and some supporters suggested that a mostly-outdoor event did not require face coverings.
“You have to be careful, but at the same time, you have to live,” said Mike Petrocco, a Sturgis resident who has long offered his lawn as a campsite during rallies. Petrocco, 64, said that at one point this year he was hosting 16 people, and that he offered hand sanitizer, did laundry and cleaned every day.
But tracking virus outbreaks, if they were to emerge, is complex and might involve multiple health departments in different states. Cases discovered in other states might never be known to South Dakota officials unless close contacts were carefully traced back.
In this city that ordinarily is home to fewer than 7,000 people, some residents seemed relieved that it was over. “There was no stopping it. People had plans to come, whether we were going to have it or not,” said Lisa Logan, 60, who left town for Iowa for much of the 10 days.
Sixty percent of residents favored postponing the event, according to a city survey, and hospital officials said they intend later this week to administer coronavirus tests to any Sturgis resident who wants one.
“It bothers me that they are so inconsiderate of their own health, the health of the folks who hosted them and for their families back home,” said Melissa Two Crow, 65.
Native American tribes in western South Dakota turned away motorcyclists who attempted to travel through the reservations to Sturgis. Rides through the reservations in South Dakota feature the rocky hill formations of the Badlands, views of the Missouri River and green hilly plains with small creeks cutting through.
“If they’ve come from out of state or from hot spots, we turn them away and ask them to seek an alternate route to their destinations,” said Remi Bald Eagle, the intergovernmental affairs coordinator for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
By the time the motorcycle rally was winding down, South Dakota had been added to New York’s list of states from which travelers are required to quarantine for 14 days.
Images of the motorcyclists in Sturgis led New Hampshire leaders to issue a mask mandate ahead of Laconia Motorcycle Week, which is scheduled for late August.
“Sturgis was a real clear warning sign to us,” Gov. Chris Sununu said during a news conference. “I don’t think anyone saw the photos out of Sturgis and said, ‘That looks safe.’”