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 ligation, 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.
“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.”
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