Officials inside and outside South Dakota are expressing concern about the potential spread of the coronavirus during an annual motorcycle rally that opened Friday in the Black Hills and typically attracts hundreds of thousands of bikers.
But officials in Sturgis, the town of 7,000 residents that has hosted the rally for 80 years, are not quite as worried.
“I don’t know if we’re concerned about an outbreak,” said Sturgis spokeswoman Christina Steele. “It’s mostly asymptomatic people that could spread this.”
Officials in neighboring states, however, don’t share that attitude, which some have called cavalier and others have attributed to South Dakota’s libertarian streak.
“We are concerned with any large gathering sustained contact of that nature,” Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, said at a news conference earlier this week. “South Dakota has seen its spikes, as well. It’s not like they’re going into an environment that has no risk.”
The coronavirus has not hit South Dakota as hard as other states. The state has had more than 9,200 infections and 141 deaths, and fewer than 50 people currently are hospitalized.
But positive cases have been climbing over the past two months in neighboring Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota. And the South Dakota Department of Health lists Meade and Pennington counties — home to many of the rally events — as having “substantial” community spread of COVID-19.
In Wyoming, which has had 27 COVID-19-related deaths, officials are recommending that riders should think before hopping on bikes and driving cross-country to the 10-day rally, which is expected to attract about 250,000 bikers — half its usual draw.
“We recognize this has the potential to be an especially large gathering,” said Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Health. “And we know the larger the gathering, the greater the risk.”
Despite a town survey showing 60% of residents wanted to cancel this year’s rally, the Sturgis City Council voted this summer to go ahead with the event, where motorcyclists spend millions of dollars amid campgrounds, music venues and other attractions.
Health warnings have been muted from the state’s leadership. Gov. Kristi Noem, a Repulbican, has discouraged mask-wearing in schools and welcomed President Trump to an outdoor rally at Mount Rushmore last month. She invited riders to the state on during an appearance on Fox News Wednesday evening.
“We’ve been back to normal for over three months here in South Dakota,” said Ms. Noem. “We hope people come [to Sturgis].”
The South Dakota Tourism Department estimates last year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally drew nearly 500,000 people and generates $800 million in revenue. Riders travel from all over the nation, including COVID-19 hotspots like Florida, California, and Texas.
This year’s rally will look notably different.
Tribal nations on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the Cheyenne Sioux Reservation — where coronavirus rates have outpaced those in most other counties — have set up checkpoints along major highways into western South Dakota that could slow some riders coming into town.
And the City of Sturgis has cancelled its sponsorship of some downtown events and is requiring masks to be provided to all staff on city grounds. Concert venues have set up hand sanitizer stations and arranged for crowds to maintain distance from stages.
Fears that the virus might be brought into the state persist.
“The biggest thing if for you to decide whether or not you’re safe to go to something like this,” said Dr. Benjamin Aaker, president of the South Dakota Medical Association. “Should I go this year or not? Talk to your doctor about whether you can be safe.”