But as coronavirus cases increase because of the highly transmissible delta variant and the millions who remain unvaccinated, there is concern among health officials, residents and even attendees that one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world, which began Friday, has the potential to become the latest superspreader event.
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 the Sturgis rally, but the true total was obscured because 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 masks 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 was fully inoculated as of Friday. Fifty percent of all U.S. adults are now fully vaccinated.
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 that no mask mandate is in place. The city has also signed off on a temporary open-container ordinance in an effort to keep people outside instead of crowded together inside bars. Steele said those who are not vaccinated or who have certain underlying health conditions are putting themselves at risk but that 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, including Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose shot, to attendees who want to be vaccinated, she said. It can take weeks for a vaccine to strengthen a person’s immune system.
The concern over the coronavirus surge in Sturgis has not stopped Jeff Stultz from making the nearly 1,800-mile ride from Fayetteville, N.C., to attend the rally for the first time. Stultz, 58, is vaccinated but said his wife was recently infected at an event in Dallas despite also being immunized. Neither he nor his wife will be wearing a mask, he told The Post, because he thinks 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 motorcycle group for recovering addicts. “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.”
Others, however, mocked the pandemic, the vaccine or both, as they walked shoulder to shoulder along a jammed Main Street at the start of the rally. Several attendees interviewed by reporters said they had no plans to be vaccinated. One man who spoke to CNN was coughing as he tried to explain why he wouldn’t get inoculated, while another unvaccinated attendee said he was not too worried about contracting the virus: “If it happens, it happens.”
In nearby Rapid City, S.D., doctors are expecting a busy week of trauma cases related to the rally, and one fatal crash already has been reported. The surge in covid cases linked to 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 L. 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 of 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-19 after they celebrated with a sea of thousands of mostly maskless fans outside the arena. 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 in effect for motorcycle attendees at a rally that features rock and country music from performers including ZZ Top, Kid Rock and Clint Black. Matt Farris, a Nashville country artist performing during the rally, said in an email that it’s been a dream of his to perform in Sturgis. He said he thinks the health and safety guidelines in place there will 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 coronavirus restrictions that are in place 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 told The Post.
For Stultz, the estimated 80,000 miles he had accumulated on a motorcycle felt like more of a risk than attending the Sturgis rally. Seventy miles outside Sturgis on Friday, Stultz said he was carrying coronavirus tests with him in case he felt any symptoms or needed to go into quarantine. He’s hopeful others at the rally of hundreds of thousands will be as cautious as he is.
“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.”