'If I die from the virus, it was just meant to be': 250,000 descend upon tiny South Dakota town for world-famous motorcycle rally

grapier@businessinsider.com (Graham Rapier)
·3 mins read
  • The world-famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally kicked off its 10 days of festivities on Friday.

  • Up to 250,000 bikers — a smaller crowd than usual — are expected to descend upon the small South Dakota town.

  • Organizers shrugged off surging coronavirus cases in the US to hold the annual event, even as a majority of the town's citizens wanted it canceled.

  • Most of the event's activities, like rides and concerts, are outdoors. But even in crowded indoor bars, there have been few masks in sight.

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A sign about social distancing outside the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota on August 9.
A sign about social distancing outside the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota on August 9.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Related: How long will social distancing last? It's complicated.

There were plenty of motorcycles and not many masks on display as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — the largest gathering of its kind — kicked off Friday in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Despite surging virus cases in the US, and against the wishes of most of the tiny town's 7,000 residents, CNN reported, the annual festival is expected to draw up to 250,000 visitors during its 10 days of group rides, poker tournaments, and even a Smash Mouth concert.

"There are people throughout America who have been locked up for months and months," Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie told CNN. "We kept hearing from people saying it doesn't matter, they are coming to Sturgis. So with that, ultimately the council decided that it was really vital for the community to be prepared for the additional people that we're going to end up having."

South Dakota, with its abundance of rural communities, has largely avoided the brunt of the pandemic — claiming 9,605 of the country's more than 5 million reported cases. That number is increasing, though, with 129 new cases reported Sunday. Despite the uptick, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said Friday that the state "is in a good spot" as she welcomed bikers.

Many of the rally's events are outdoors, where the spread of the virus appears more limited, but drinking in bars remains one of the festival's premier attractions. If an outbreak does occur this week, experts worry the massive convergence on a small town with limited medical resources could make it a superspreader event as partygoers return home.

A concert at the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 9.
A concert at the Full Throttle Saloon during the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 9.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Most infections can be traced to these superspreading events, where one person infects many others, recent research out of Hong Kong showed. The study described superspreader events as the primary means of transmission of the virus.

"Superspreading events are happening more than we expected, more than what could be explained by chance," Ben Cowling, an infectious-disease researcher who coauthored the study, told Business Insider in June. "The frequency of superspreading is beyond what we could have imagined."

Vendors set up their Trump Shop stand a day before the start of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 6.
Vendors set up their Trump Shop stand a day before the start of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 6.

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

"I haven't seen much of a change in attendance so far," the owner of a popular nearby campground told The New York Times. "We told everyone if you are worried about it, stay home, don't come."

Many of those who came aren't worried at all.

"I'm not convinced it's real," Thomas Seale of Denver told The New York Times. "I think it's nothing more than the flu. If I die from the virus, it was just meant to be."

And the revelry typically associated with the rally hasn't slowed either. CBS News reported that local police made 84 arrests, responded to 18 crashes, and issued 226 citations in the first 24 hours of the rally over the weekend.

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