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Sturgis motorcycle rally roars back as COVID-19 cases rise in South Dakota

Motorcycles cruise through downtown Sturgis, S.D.
Motorcycles cruise through downtown Sturgis, S.D., on Thursday, the eve of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
(Stephen Groves / Associated Press)

The Black Hills of South Dakota roared with motorcycles and crowds Friday as the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally kicked off, with mostly maskless rallygoers packed shoulder-to-shoulder at bars and rock shows, despite a rise in COVID-19 cases in the state.

Organizers expect at least 700,000 people during the 10-day event that is a rendezvous for bikers, who connect over their love for motorcycles. For some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime goal to make it to Sturgis; others faithfully make the pilgrimage year after year.

“It’s just a great big family atmosphere, everybody’s out here for the same purpose — we all love motorcycles,” said Aaron Harper. “If you’re a motorcyclist, you have to see it at least once in your life.”

Public health experts — and some locals — worry the rally will again play host to coronavirus infections, after hundreds of rallygoers were infected last year. Only about 46% of adults who live in the county where Sturgis is located are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 60.6% nationwide. Virus infections are on the rise in South Dakota after a steady decline through the spring and early summer. The Department of Health reported a 68% jump in infections last week, with the highly contagious Delta variant spurring a larger share of those infections.

The annual rally transforms Sturgis, usually a quiet community of under 7,000 residents, into a travel hub comparable to a major U.S. city. One analysis of anonymous cellphone data last year found that well over half of all the counties in the country were visited by someone who attended Sturgis. A team of researchers from the CDC concluded that last year’s rally ended up looking like a “superspreader event.”

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This year, the rally is expected to be even bigger. The city held an opening ceremony Friday for the 81st iteration of the event — something it skipped last year in an attempt to tamp down the crowds.

Jody Perewitz, the rally’s ceremonial grand marshal, said she was “ecstatic” to see how many people came for the opening ceremony. Motorcycles stretched for blocks as crowds strolled Main Street, the heart of the rally.

The biggest step city officials took this year to mitigate the risk of infections was allowing rallygoers to drink on public property, the idea being to spread the crowds outdoors in the open air as much as possible. Bars and food stalls that stretch for blocks also offer outdoor seating.

The hundreds of thousands of bikers who attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally have departed South Dakota, some carrying the coronavirus with them.

“We’re out in the wide open,” said Pam Williamson, a rallygoer from Kansas who also attended last year’s gathering. “If you want to wear a mask, that’s your business. If you don’t, that’s your business.”

If last year’s rally was marked by defiance of coronavirus precautions, with T-shirts on sale that read, “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis,” this year the pandemic appeared to hardly be an afterthought amid a crowd that embraces the risks and lifestyle of the open road.

“A lot of that, I don’t worry too much about,” said J.J. Vilella, who said he has not received a COVID-19 vaccine. “If it happens, it happens.”

The rally is known as a place where people let loose, strolling the streets in minimal attire and body painting. On Thursday, one woman walked through downtown with a goat on a leash. A man sat on a bench with a rifle as passersby smiled and nodded.

In South Dakota’s largest city, the coronavirus was once largely seen as something that infected refugees and immigrants at the Smithfield pork plant. Now, it has spread far and wide across one of the worst-hit states.

Health experts say big gatherings provide fertile ground to start a wave of infections. That didn’t seem to slow the Sturgis crowds.

“It’s in the back of your mind, you think about it a little bit,” said Harper. The Nebraska resident has not received a vaccine yet, but said he intends to. “But you’ve got to live your life and enjoy it and have fun still.”


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