The sleepy town of Sturgis, South Dakota, draws nearly one million people for its 10-day motorcycle rally each year.
There were calls to cancel the event this year as the US is gripped by a still-raging coronavirus pandemic, but officials knew bikers would show up in their community, and those surrounding it, no matter what.
The local hospital, public safety entities, and the city are bracing for massive crowds, and the possibility of a surge in coronavirus cases to follow.
For more than 10 days every year, the sleepy city of Sturgis, South Dakota, is inundated with up to 700,000 bikers from around the world for its annual motorcycle rally.
Bikers from around the US and abroad mount their bikes and ride through the Black Hills mountain range, visiting national parks and campgrounds within a 100-mile radius of the city.
When they arrive in Sturgis for the main events, the men and women flood the streets, renting homes or front yards from residents so they can park their bikes and trailers, or pitch their tents.
They fill the local bars, restaurants, and, in some cases, the emergency room. Their presence brings more than $1 million in revenue to the city where it houses its own full-time, year-round department dedicated to planning for the event.
For some people this year, the rally brings less excitement and more fear as the coronavirus pandemic rages on in the US, where more than 4.8 million people have tested positive for the virus, and more than 160,000 people have died from it.
Officials, residents, and healthcare providers are bracing for what could end up being a dangerous situation in a community that, until now, had kept its coronavirus infection rate low.
“There was really very little we could do to stop them from coming. It’s not a gated event where we can just lock the doors and not allow people to come in,” City Manager Daniel Ainslie told Insider. “Given all that, there was a realization that no matter what the city decided, there were going to be an awful lot of people that came to the rally.”
More than half of the households in Sturgis responded to city surveys saying they didn’t want the rally to go on, but city and hospital officials found that even if they were to cancel the event, revelers would still show up in their community, Ainslie explained.
Businesses depend on the dollars that tourists bring into the community, so some local associations were opposed to calling off the event. Knowing this, organizers threw their efforts behind preparations for a modified rally.
Earlier this year, the city canceled all advertising for the event and urged concerned callers from states with high infection rates, or those who are part of a high-risk group, to consider skipping the rally this year, Ainslie said.
They created a program where city employees and volunteers do the shopping for seniors and those with compromised immune systems who may be more susceptible to catching COVID-19.
The city has constructed handwashing stations, sanitizing stands, and is providing free face masks to visitors. There will also be sidewalk sanitation every evening, according to Ainslie.
“As a city, we canceled we just about every city event we did,” he said. “Every day we would have various events, contests, parades. But every time we would hold something like that, there would be crowds of thousands of people that would gather.”
There is only so much the city can do to encourage visitors to be safe
Ainslie said the city is doing its best to encourage people to wear masks, which are known to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but it really has no enforcement power. In order to enact an ordinance requiring that masks be worn, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem must order it.
During opening weekend, most people flouted the advice and went maskless even in packed bars and restaurants.
For months, Noem, a Republican, has been vocally opposed to stay-at-home orders. As for masks, Noem discourages their use, even at schools which she has pushed to reopen, despite concerns nationwide about the potential for the virus to spread there.
When the Sturgis officials talked with Noem about the motorcycle rally, she told them she had no plan to issue a mask order, Ainslee said.
“Being in South Dakota, our authority as a municipality is quite different than other states,”Ainslie said. “We are not able to pass any ordinance or requirements for masking. The only way we can do that is if there is an executive order from the governor. Since that hasn’t occurred, we don’t have required masking, it’s just something legally we can’t do.”
“It does come down to personal responsibility and personal freedom,” he said.
People need to realize, Ainslie said, that if they ignore safety guidelines, “there may be consequences.”
It’s not just the city of Sturgis that will be affected by the sound of roaring motorcycles and the riders who might be carrying COVID-19.
Visitors are coming from all over to get to the area, some of them passing through surrounding communities, including Native American lands, or places of worship.
The Bear Butte National Park, for example, is a geological laccolith feature a few miles outside Sturgis, and is considered a sacred site.
With the Cheyenne River Reservation less than a two-hour drive from the area, Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes frequent Bear Butte to fast and hold religious ceremonies.
Members of the local tribes have for years opposed the rally and the raucous gatherings it tends to bring.
Starting in May, in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe began operating checkpoints at the reservation borders to prevent outsiders from crossing though.
Native Americans, particularly those living on reservations, are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, The New York Times reported.
Insider requested an interview with Noem, but a spokesman instead referred a reporter to comments the governor previously made to Fox News.
In that interview, Noem said there have been several large gatherings already held in the state — including a bull-riding event and an Independence Day celebration — and they didn’t cause an outbreak, according to Noem.
“We’ve been back to normal for over three months here in South Dakota, so we know we can have these events, give people information, let people protect their health, but let them still enjoy their way of life, and events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally,” she said. “We hope people come. Our economy benefits when people visit us.”
Officials anticipated decreased attendence, but pre-rally crowds were larger than ever
This year’s rally, which kicked off Friday and lasts through August 16, is the 80th anniversary of the event and was expected to be a blowout.
Hundreds of thousands of people showed up last weekend, packing bars and restaurants.
Every five years, attendence at the rally spikes, Ainslie said.
“Our 75th anniversary was the biggest we’ve ever had. There were almost three-quarters of a million people there,” Ainslie told Insider. “And given how good the economy was doing, it was looking like we would have easily matched that or surpassed that this year.”
With the pandemic, related stay-at-home orders, travel bans, and a recession, the city estimated that there would be at least a 20% reduction in crowds, up 10% due to the absence of international guests this year.
“That being said, our pre-rally numbers have been just about the highest we’ve ever seen, so maybe everything I said is completely out the window,” Ainslie said.
Not knowing what to expect, the city went on with its normal public-safety preparations.
That includes boosting its 12-person year-round police force by hiring outside officers from nine states, Ainslie said.
Additionally, the city pays the volunteer fire department, which goes from handling a call every three days, to responding to two or three calls per day during the motorcycle rally, Ainslie said.
While the city maintains a large EMS team year-round, the men and women usually go on a call only once or twice a month. During the rally, they work 60 to 80 hours per week for two weeks, Ainslie said.
The annual event also transforms the local hospital, a small 25-bed facility.
Mark Schulte, President of the local Monument Health Sturgis Hospital, told Insider the health system was never under the impression that the rally could be called off and knew from the beginning it, and the city itself, needed to brace itself for the crowds as normal.
“While Sturgis is the name, a lot of the activity that goes on happens outside the city limits … Not one entity has the ability to cancel this type of event,” he said. “There’s so many pieces that go with the event, it’s literally impossible to stop.”
In an average month, the hospital will see around 450 patients. During the 10-day rally, the hospital will treat that many patients in ER visits alone, said Schulte, who has experienced the last seven seasons.
“The demographic of the biker have obviously aged over the years. Prior to me coming here, 10-20 years go, there was a lot of fighting, those kinds of trauma injuries,” he said. “Now we take care of a lot of medical conditions that people who are 50, 60, 70 years old might see: exhaustion, dehydration, cardiac problems.”
The health system itself, which covers all of the Black Hills area, will likely see an uptick in trauma injuries too, especially those from motorcycle accidents that might occur miles outside of Sturgis.
In preparation, the system increases staffing, bed capacity, and many providers work extra hours, he said.
As for the coronavirus, there have only been around 80 cases in Meade County, where Sturgis is located, so far, according to Ainslie. The numbers have seen a slight uptick over the last three weeks, which is “worrying,” but expected, he said.
Schulte said the hospital has implemented face mask requirements, increased capacity to treat those who fall seriously ill, and implemented restrictions on visitors. Every visitor is screened for coronavirus symptoms before they come into the hospital.
“We work within the confines with knowing how the virus spreads, and anytime there is a gathering of folks like this, they run the risk of having an outbreak so to speak,” he said. “I’m not going to make a prediction on whether we’re going to see a spike. I can tell you we’re prepared for what’s to come.”
While outsiders are there to party, local residents are encouraged to stay home
About 15 to 20% of year-round residents rent their homes or yards to bikers each year, Ainslie told Insider. Many will leave the community entirely to visit family or friends in other parts of the country.
People who work in local businesses, and those who are elderly, don’t have that option.
“We do have a very sizable retiree population. We have a lot of veterans who have served our country honorably and they’ve located here bc they’re right next to their (VA) health care,” Ainslie said. “We have a lot of those people who are very concerned about it, very understandably so, and that’s why we are encouraging them not to come out and part-take in any of the activities.”
The number of people using the city-run delivery service has gone up, as some residents are hunkering down in their homes.
Crowds don’t show up overnight. In fact, this year tourists started flocking to the Black Hills in droves as early as May.
“Everytime a state would have a lockdown, it would seem like half that state would relocate to the Black Hills for a month or so,” Ainslie said. “We’re trying to keep people who are vulnerable away from the crowds who are here now.”
Of course many residents, especially essential workers, can’t avoid the crowds. To track the spread of coronavirus, the city and Monument Health have teamed up to host a mass testing event that will be held after the motorcycle rally ends.
“We will take a percentage of the population of Sturgis that are asymptotic and provide free testing,” Schulte said. “It’s meant to determine, post rally, how much of the virus did or didnt spread.”
As for how Monument Health providers feel about the rally landing in the middle of a pandemic, Schulte said there were fears at first and said he has tried to do his best to mitigate those concerns and make sure his staff remains safe.
“Our staff wondered what was to come. They, like most folks during this pandemic, have had fears,” he said. “It seems like, as it is with a lot of rallies regardless of a pandemic, they kind of want it to get here and get over with so we can get back to our daily lives.”
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