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No masks required as 250,000 expected at 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Here's what to know.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/8/2020 Joel Shannon, USA TODAY
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One of the largest events since the beginning of the pandemic has begun in South Dakota: More than 250,000 people are expected at the iconic Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

That's scaled down from previous years, where about half-a-million people have descended on the city of about 7,000 for an event that has developed a reputation as an anything-goes festival.

While the 80-year tradition isn't as raucous as it once was, festivalgoers will be largely free of social distancing restrictions common elsewhere in the country during this year's 10-day festival.

a crowd of people walking down a street: Motorcyclists ride through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 8, 2020. © Michael Ciaglo, Getty Images Motorcyclists ride through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 8, 2020.

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Bikers flocking to the small town from around the country won't face quarantining requirements if they are from a coronavirus hot spot.

And masks? They're encouraged – not required.

So far, few people are heeding that encouragement, according to Associated Press reports from Friday and Saturday. 

a group of people riding a motorcycle on a city street: Motorcycles and people crowd Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 7, 2020 in Sturgis, South Dakota. © Michael Ciaglo, Getty Images Motorcycles and people crowd Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 7, 2020 in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Many who rode their bikes into Sturgis on Friday expressed defiance at the rules and restrictions that have marked life in much of the world during the pandemic.

“Screw COVID,” read the design on one T-shirt being hawked. “I went to Sturgis.”

Local officials have made efforts to scale down the event, but some expect restriction-weary bikers to flock to Sturgis in large numbers.

“It’s the biggest single event that’s going on in the United States that didn’t get canceled,” said Rod Woodruff, who operates the largest campground and concert venue that lies outside the bounds of the city.

“A lot of people think it’s going to be bigger than ever.”

In addition to normal concerns about crime, many locals are worried the huge crowds and lack of social distancing rules will lead to an unmanageable outbreak of COVID-19.

What is Sturgis?

The rally may be known for rowdy, drunken and naked shenanigans, but in recent years longtime attendees complain it has lost its edge. 

First-time visitors might be excused for thinking the rally isn’t much more than an excuse to create one of the world’s largest open-air shopping malls. There's usually corporate sponsorships, licensed T-shirt vendors, insurance companies and lawyers.

Most attendees in recent years are professionals with too much to lose if they get arrested. The top three professions at Sturgis are doctors, lawyers and accountants, city officials have said in previous years.

That's translated to big money for the local economy. Last year, the rally brought in about $1.3 million in tax revenue for South Dakota, according to the state Department of Revenue. 

a group of people riding on the back of a motorcycle: People walk through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 8, 2020. © Michael Ciaglo, Getty Images People walk through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 8, 2020.

What is it like at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally right now?

The scene Saturday looked much like past years, with throngs of maskless bikers packing the streets.

Motorcyclist Kevin Lunsmann, 63, rode more than 600 miles to the rally from Big Lake, Minnesota, with several friends. Lunsmann, who has attended the event every year since 2003, said he was “somewhat" concerned about the coronavirus, but not enough to miss the 80th anniversary.

The crowds of people and rows of bikes did surprise him, though. He said there was no difference from previous years “other than a few people wearing masks.” While Lunsmann was avoiding the bars and nightclubs this year, many others were not. They were filled with revelers as the sun set Friday.

“Everybody’s still partying hardy,” Lunsmann said.

Bob Graham, 71, was one of the few people wearing masks as he walked along Main Street. “We don’t want the virus. We want to come up here a few more years yet,” Graham said.

Graham made his 36th annual trip to Sturgis from Central City, Nebraska, with his wife, calling it “kind of like our therapy for the year.”

For Stephen Sample, who rode his Harley from Arizona, the event was a break from the routine of the last several months, when he’s been mostly homebound or wearing a mask when he went to work as a surveyor.

“I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be cooped up all my life either,” he said.

Is the event risky during a pandemic?

While outdoor events are widely believed to be lower risk than indoor ones, the unprecedented size of the gathering is prompting serious concerns.

"You're just adding fuel to a fire," epidemiologist Dr. John Brownstein, told ABC News. "South Dakota is already experiencing increases in transmission. COVID is not under control in South Dakota; it's just not."

Among Brownstein's worries: That attendees could become infected at the event and spread it across the nation as they return home – and that the rural health care system doesn't have the ability to handle a possible local surge in cases. 

Many locals seem to share in the concern. When asked earlier this year whether the iconic motorcycle rally should be held, their answer was an overwhelming "no."

More than half of the community expressed their feelings in a survey. A sizable majority of 62% asked city officials to postpone the rally.

Several steps have been taken to reduce risk, local media reports: The Community Center will not be hosting vendors inside as in the past, according to NewsCenter 1. And Sturgis High School will not offer shower services nor host the annual pancake breakfast as in the past.

Mayor Mark Carstensen on Thursday told CNN the city is setting up sanitation stations and giving out masks, although they aren't mandated.

Why are local leaders allowing the event to go on? 

Businesses pressured the City Council to proceed and Sturgis officials say the rally would happen whether they wanted it or not. So they opted to try to scale it back, canceling city-hosted events and slashing advertising for the rally.

Daniel Ainslie, Sturgis’ city manager, said the city received a letter sent by attorneys for an outside business containing threats of litigation unless the rally moved forward. It suggested the city did not have the right to cancel the rally because previous court rulings found that the rally is not produced by a single organizer.

For his part, Woodruff said he felt he had little choice but to proceed with the rally. He employs hundreds of people in August and a smaller full-time staff.

“We spend money for 355 days of the year without any return on it, hoping people show up for nine days,” he said. “We’re a nine-day business.”

What are the rules in South Dakota about masks, social distancing?

Gov. Kristi Noem has taken a relaxed approach to the pandemic. Even as Republican governors in states like Texas have moved to require people to wear masks, Noem didn’t require physical distancing or masks at the July 3 celebration at Mount Rushmore, which President Donald Trump attended.

She supported holding the Sturgis rally, tweeting Thursday: "I trusted my people, they trusted me, and South Dakota is in a good spot in our fight against COVID-19. The #Sturgis motorcycle rally starts this weekend, and we're excited for visitors to see what our great state has to offer!"

Noem has pointed out that no virus outbreak was documented from the several thousand people who turned out to see President Donald Trump and fireworks at Mount Rushmore last month.

Daily virus cases have been trending upward in South Dakota, but the seven-day average is still only around 84, with fewer than two deaths per day.

Contributing: Patrick Anderson, Sioux Falls Argus Leader; Trevor Hughes; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: No masks required as 250,000 expected at 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Here's what to know.

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