When the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally opens Aug. 7 in South Dakota, it will probably be the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world this year. Organizers expect a quarter of a million people to attend over its 10 days. This is about half the number of last year’s attendees, but it still promises to be a raucous blend of loud bikes, louder bars and loudest-of-all rock bands, with daily races and nightly concerts throughout the week.
“The City of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is an icon of American Freedom and Independence,” said the City Council in a June press release that confirmed the rally would go ahead, despite daily increases in recorded cases of the COVID-19 virus.
American Free-dumb, more like. The Black Hills will be a petri dish of contagion, spreading back through the United States after the partying rally-goers return home in mid-August. Contact tracing will be near-impossible and pointless. When American death rates surge in September among bikers and the countless people with whom they’ve come into contact, the blame will fall on the change of seasons, just as President Trump predicted months ago.
The City of Sturgis didn’t enter into this lightly. It spent several months surveying rally exhibitors, merchants and potential participants before making a commitment. It sent out a postal survey to the 7,000 residents of the small city, about an hour west of Rapid City and north of Mount Rushmore, and 62 per cent of the responses called for the rally to be either postponed or cancelled. But then, according to the local Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the city received a letter from a Rapid City merchandiser reminding it that a federal judge had ruled that no single entity “owns, produces or operates” the rally. If the city tried to shut things down, it would be “subject to claims of liability.”
In a good year, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally can earn close to US$800-million for the region. Money talks. The city voted to go ahead with it, residents be damned.
Besides, the rally is so huge that its participants spread themselves at least a hundred kilometres in all directions into the region’s restaurants, bars, hotels and campgrounds. Even if the town closed shop and barricaded its borders, riders would still come to western South Dakota to celebrate their American freedom. Before the city announced its decision, the massive Buffalo Chip Campground just past the edge of town announced it would be open for business, with BBQ pits, bike shows and concerts featuring more than 20 bands, including Smash Mouth, Buckcherry and even The Guess Who. It’s not quite business as usual, though – there’ll be hand-washing stations throughout the grounds.
So far, South Dakota has fared much better than most in the fight against COVID-19. The state is large, rural and lightly populated. It’s one of only two states, along with neighbouring Iowa, that does not have a mandatory requirement to wear a mask in public places. When President Trump came to Mount Rushmore on July 3 to celebrate the eve of Independence Day, the state’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, told Fox News there would be no physical distancing and masks would be optional. Apparently, there was no outbreak of COVID-19 afterward among the 7,500 attendees, reinforcing the governor’s convictions.
The Sturgis rally organizers are being a little more cautious. They’ve cancelled the opening parade and the B1 bomber flypast that each draw huge, pressing crowds, and groups of people will be asked to stand at least six feet apart. They’re encouraging vendors to wear masks. There will be hand-washing stations at every street corner, and only half the maximum number of people allowed by the fire marshal to enter a building will be permitted inside.
Besides, “there have been many huge rodeos and parades and just a lot of stuff all summer long,” a rally spokesperson told South Dakota’s KTTC News. “We’ve had many large gatherings already this summer with minimal impact, if any.”
But those rodeos and parades don’t attract the hundreds of thousands of bikers who’ll be riding in from hotspot states like Texas, Florida and California. And COVID-19 counts have been steadily rising since May: on the Monday before the rally, the Department of Health reported 65 new cases of COVID-19 in South Dakota, for a total of 946 active cases and just over 9,000 cases recorded so far in the pandemic. There were no new deaths reported to add to the total of just over 130 across the state.
This will all change when hundreds of thousands of visitors arrive from the rest of the infected country, where there are 60,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths reported each day. The virus’s incubation period of up to two weeks means it won’t really be seen until after the last of the rally-goers fire up their V-twins on August 16 and leave town, most of them riding helmetless as they fan back home across the United States in their celebration of freedom.
After all, Sturgis is a biker rally, one of the biggest. There’ll be burgers and beer and Jack Daniels in hundreds of makeshift bars and around thousands of campfires as the leather-clad, leather-skinned Warriors of the Road stick it to The Man. They’ll be fearless in their defiance of the scourge of the virus, especially if there’s alcohol involved. Which means good luck telling them to stand six feet apart and wash their hands.
This will be their declaration of free-dumb, and all we can do in Canada is shake our heads and keep the border closed.
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