For most of the year, Sturgis, S.D., is a relatively quiet city of 7,000 residents tucked beside a 1.2 million-acre forest, with a motorcycle museum as its signature attraction. But each summer, Sturgis transforms as bikers descend for a massive motorcycle rally.
This year’s festival may attract about 250,000 people despite an uptick in coronavirus cases across the state, city officials say, leading to fears it could become a super-spreader event.
When the virus upended life across America in the spring, it forced the cancellation of graduation ceremonies, music festivals, marathons and other large gatherings. Sturgis, which has hosted the rally since 1938, pushed ahead with its plans anyway.
The 10-day rally, which begins Friday, may be the country’s largest public gathering since the pandemic began, and it comes amid widespread opposition. More than 60 percent of residents favored postponing the event, according to a city-sponsored survey.
“We should have postponed or canceled the rally last March,” said Terry Keszler, a Sturgis City Council member, echoing the concerns that have divided his community.
City officials faced pressure from businesses, people outside the city and threats of litigation, Mr. Keszler said. Still, they cut back on advertising and canceled city-sponsored events, including the opening ceremony.
Over the past week, there has been an average of 84 coronavirus cases a day in South Dakota, a 31 percent increase over the previous two weeks. And some say the surge might grow worse: The city plans to offer coronavirus testing for its residents once the rally concludes on Aug. 16.
“Everyone wanted to have this rally whether we wanted it or not,” Mr. Keszler said. “We were boxed into a corner.”
Little could be done to stop the event, said Doreen Allison Creed, the Meade County commissioner who represents Sturgis. Ms. Creed said the county lacked the authority to shut down the rally because much of it takes place on state-licensed campgrounds.
“We are either going to be a great success story or failure,” Ms. Creed said. “I truly believe it could not have been stopped.”
Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, encouraged people to attend the rally in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday night, saying the state had successfully hosted other large events — including a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore that President Trump attended — without seeing a direct increase in virus cases. Plus, she said, the state’s economy benefits when people visit.
The state’s Department of Tourism has estimated that the annual festival generates about $800 million in revenue. It is quite the sight: When rallygoers from across the United States and Canada make their annual pilgrimage to Sturgis, the otherwise quiet stretch of Interstate 90 is congested with motorcycles, their engines sputtering as they announce their arrival.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 6, 2020
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- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
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- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
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- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
“We know we could have these events, get people information, let them protect their health,” Ms. Noem said, “but still enjoy their way of life and enjoy events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.”
Health experts say the coronavirus is less likely to spread outdoors, especially when people wear masks and socially distance. But large gatherings like the motorcycle rally also increase the number of visitors inside restaurants and stores.
South Dakota is among several states that did not put in place a lockdown or a mandatory mask requirement. In April, the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls became what was then the nation’s largest coronavirus hot spot when more than 600 employees were sickened by the virus.
Many bikers stop in Sioux Falls, which is primarily in Minnehaha County, on their way to Sturgis because it is the last metro area on their way to the rally, said Jeff Barth, a county commissioner. That worries him, he said, because it opens residents up to potential exposure.
“We all recognize what is going to happen,” he said.
Still, Sturgis businesses are preparing for the rush. Rod Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip, which is outside the city limits of Sturgis and is used as a campground by motorcyclists, said bikers have begun to arrive.
“I haven’t seen much of a change in attendance so far” over past years, Mr. Woodruff said.
Signs outlining guidelines to socially distance are posted, hand sanitizer has been put out and bandannas will be given to anyone attending events in the amphitheater, although they will not be required.
“We told everyone,” he said, “if you are worried about it, stay home, don’t come.”