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STURGIS, South Dakota—The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is all about crowds.
But in August 2021, it’s not just the crowds that have epidemiologists freaking out. It’s who is in them.
Interviews this week suggest many attendees of the days-long death march here are unvaccinated people who, in addition to often refusing masks, are rejecting the best tool there is to curb the raging pandemic.
It’s not exactly shocking that the hundreds of thousands of people packing into a crowded event like this one—led by pandemic skeptics like Gov. Kristi Noem—would be disproportionately composed of the unvaccinated. But experts suggested the event’s wide reach, along with the spiral of the new and unrelenting Delta variant, could spell nationwide disaster.
“Hope’s not a strategy right now. Vaccination is,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota professor of public health and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy who advised the Joe Biden transition, told The Daily Beast. “And there will be people who will be infected as a result of this event.
“The question for everybody is, how many?”
For most of the year, the northern Black Hills are thinly populated, with abundant wild areas dotted with a few small towns and cities.
During the summer, tourists flock in.
When the rally roars into the region in early August, the population explodes, as hundreds of thousands of people rush to Sturgis and the surrounding area to ride motorcycles, attend rock concerts, and drink in bars. This year, the estimate was that up to 700,000 people may attend the rally, which officially started Friday and runs through Sunday.
All this is happening as the Delta variant of COVID-19 is rapidly spreading across the country, sending thousands of people to hospitals, and many to morgues.
But at the rally itself, bikers typically scoff at such warnings. Almost no masks were evident across the region this week.
Sturgis Public Information Officer Christina Steele, who serves as a rally spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast that while the event has been crowded, she doubted it would top the record 750,000 people who came for the 75th anniversary in 2015.
Much more alarming: Steele said she had heard no concerns about COVID-19.
“Only the media,” she said with a laugh. “I only hear about that from media. No one is talking about it.”
Jeff and Julie Johnson of Denver, Colorado, were at the rally for three days and left Sunday night with smiles on their faces. Neither one was vaccinated, but they said they were not concerned either.
“I’ve worked through the whole thing without it,” Jeff, 54, told The Daily Beast.
Carl McCormack, 55, and his buddy Andrew Rick, 54, both of Blackhawk, S.D., a small town just outside of Rapid City, said they took two weeks vacation during the rally each year to ride and party.
“This is our time,” McCormack said.
Neither one is vaccinated, and they were not alone, a testament to the bubble—ideological, but not, as experts might hope, biological—here of those unconcerned with the pandemic.
“No one I know is vaccinated,” Rick said.
Greg Bailey, 55, of Washington state, was at his 12th rally. He first came in 1986, when it was still a true biker rally, he said, instead of the family event it has become.
“It was definitely different,” Bailey told The Daily Beast. “You watched your p’s and q’s.”
Now, he sees a lot of kids milling about. Bailey said he’s not sure that’s for the best, given there are still rough and bawdy moments at the event.
“There’s some things even I don’t want to see,” he said, perhaps referring to the slew of deaths that have always accompanied the rally in accidents and the like, even before the pandemic. Five people have died in bike-related accidents around here in the early days of August alone.
But as for COVID-19, Bailey, a longshoreman, is not vaccinated–and doesn’t see the need. This despite his working as an EMT for 24 years.
“I don’t listen to politicians. They’re going to lie,” he said. “It’s all about votes, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t trust either party.”
Em Straley, 32, a nurse at Monument Health in Rapid City, has lived in the Black Hills for almost four years and has attended the rally every year.
“I come here because I’m so incredibly passionate about motorcycles and power-unlimited motorsports,” she said in an interview.
Straley declined to answer when asked if she was vaccinated, adding—dubiously—that if people practice proper social distancing and are smart, they should be fine.
Monument Health recommends its employees get vaccinated, but does not require it, according to spokesman Dan Daly.
It’s hard to see much evidence of social distancing here anyway: A photo is taken in downtown Sturgis every day at noon, and thousands of people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks.
Kid Rock performed at The Buffalo Chip, the largest and most popular campground, on Sunday night, and a huge crowd packed the venue. Concerts are held all through the 10 days of the rally, and the crowds this year are by some accounts the largest ever.
Based on reporting in Sturgis, Wall, Spearfish, and Deadwood, finding vaccinated people at Sturgis 2021 ain’t easy. But they’re out there.
Daniel Solorzano, sales manager of Continental Tires, the official tire of The Buffalo Chip, said he was vaccinated—as were the three Continental Tires employees who came with him.
Solorzano, who is originally from Spain, rode his bike in the Legends Ride Monday afternoon. Gov. Noem, who is vaccinated, led the way, first riding horse Ice Man to a stage for an outdoor event.
“Welcome to South Dakota,” she said. “Welcome to freedom.”
One major difference from the 2021 Sturgis Rally and the 2020 event—which was widely derided as a superspreader fiasco, but only directly connected to one death—is the fact that the Delta variant may spread far more easily.
Lawrence Gostin, a global health-law expert at Georgetown, told The Daily Beast there could be “hundreds of preventable deaths” linked to the biker festival as the coronavirus shows no sign of abating.
People might think they are safe at outdoor concerts and other events, Osterholm, the expert from Minnesota—where that 2020 fatality was recorded—added. But they are still at great risk.
“This virus does not discriminate who it will infect,” he said. “What happens, though, is whether or not you’re vaccinated or not makes a big difference when that happens.
“You can’t run out the game clock with this virus. A lot of people think, Well, I haven’t been vaccinated yet, I haven’t gotten infected yet. You know, it’s not going to infect me, it’ll be over with soon,” Osterholm said.
“Just know that this virus will find you,” he added.
Dr. Osterholm served as the Minnesota state epidemiologist for 15 years, stepping down in 1999. South Dakota State Epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did anyone from the state Department of Health respond to an emailed request.
“Even in outdoor settings, congregating large crowds of unvaccinated and unmasked bikers is a recipe for extreme danger,” Gostin said. “What worries me is not only the fact that these riders will become infected, but also that they will travel back to their hometowns and infect their family, neighbors, and co-workers. The rally is not just a danger for South Dakota, but for the nation.”
Local medical professionals have already begun bracing for impact.
“Yes, we are very likely as a result of the massive gathering of people during an ongoing pandemic direct witness to a wide dissemination or spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus in the region and beyond,” Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of Medical Affairs at Monument Health, told The Daily Beast Tuesday.
He noted the variant’s massively higher transmissibility than previous ones, arguing that the number of unvaccinated people raises the risk factor considerably.
“The transmission and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is directly dependent on the immune status of the population. Given that we have low rates of vaccination or immunization, the Sturgis Rally has a high potential of becoming a superspreader event,” he said.
Biology professor Anna Yeung-Cheung of Manhattanville College, a private school in Purchase, New York, was appalled when told about the rally.
“Oh my God … where do they get all these people?” she said. “That’s very scary.”
Yeung-Cheung echoed other experts in noting that while the number of cases is low in South Dakota, at least so far, the problem is that bikers from across the country are coming to the Black Hills.
“And that’s the issue,” Yeung-Cheung said. “It’s not just about South Dakota, it is about the whole United States.”