Sturgis Motorcycle Rally: Bikers swarm South Dakota amid COVID-19 surge

STURGIS, S.D. — With an estimated 700,000 bikers expected to converge on South Dakota’s Black Hills this weekend for the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, public health officials are bracing for the event’s potential COVID-19 superspreader fallout.

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According to The Washington Post, at least 649 COVID-19 cases were linked to the 2020 rally, which attracted only about 460,000 attendees, but the true total was “obscured” by bikers returning to their home states, hampering contact-tracing efforts.

>> Related: Coronavirus: Officials link more than 100 COVID-19 cases in 8 states to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Although large swaths of 2020 Sturgis riders skirted masking and social distancing guidelines intended to minimize the spread of the virus, organizers of the 2021 event implemented several defensive measures, including offering coronavirus tests, free masks and hand sanitizer stations. Meanwhile, fines for carrying alcoholic drinks outside were eliminated for the 2021 rally as a means of limiting crowds inside bars, and city officials have issued stern warnings to those individuals for whom COVID-19 poses the strongest threat, The New York Times reported.

“We are encouraging people who are in a high-risk category, whether it be age or because of comorbidities, that they come next year,” Dan Ainslie, Sturgis’s city manager, told the Times.

The guidance appears prudent considering that, while masks are encouraged among rally attendees, masks are not required during the 10-day event, and the virus’s delta variant continues ravaging the nation, largely unchecked among the unvaccinated.

>> Related: Coronavirus: First COVID-19 death linked to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally confirmed

“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,” Christina Steele, a spokeswoman for the city of Sturgis, told the Post.

“People here don’t want to talk about COVID-19. They want to have a good time,” she added

Although Sturgis’s coronavirus case numbers are relatively low, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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, the Post reported.

According to the CDC, about 37% of Meade County residents were fully vaccinated by Friday morning, as were more than 47% of all South Dakotans.

Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president for medical affairs at Sturgis-based Monument Health, told the Times that “100%” of the local cases reported in recent weeks have occurred among unvaccinated people.

“We want to make sure people have access to testing so that if there’s an outbreak we can catch it early,” Kurra told the newspaper.

South Dakota’s Department of Tourism has estimated that the annual festival - with high-profile sponsors this year including Budweiser, Harley-Davidson and Coca-Cola - generates about $800 million in revenue, the Times reported.

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