Despite COVID-19 concerns, the biggest biker event in South Dakota is still set to proceed with slight modifications, likely attracting hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders to Sturgis and the surrounding Black Hills mountain region starting Friday this week.
The 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which will run until Aug. 16, is “an icon of American Freedom and Independence,” according to a press release put out on the Sturgis website in June that announced a “modified” version of the event.
“After considering many options, the City Council voted in favor of moving forward with preparations for the large influx of tourists and participants coming to enjoy the Black Hills, with a focus on preserving the safety of our residents,” the release reads. “Attendees will be asked to be respectful of the community concerns by practicing social distancing and taking personal responsibility for their health by following CDC guidelines.”
The release describes “enhanced safety and sanitization protocols” that will be present at the event, including public hand-sanitizing stations in Sturgis’ downtown as well as nightly sidewalk cleanings. All vendors must wear masks and post signage requesting customers to socially distance, though masks are not required for the customers themselves.
Attendance at the rally is usually around 500,000, but accounting for the coronavirus pandemic, this year it is expected to be around 250,000, The Rapid City Journal reported in June. Sturgis itself has a population only numbering a little over 7,200.
“The city knew that people were coming no matter what and we had to be prepared, so we altered our normal plan a bit and are doing our best to keep people safe,” rally spokeswoman Christina Steele told The Rapid City Journal.
The decision to hold the rally comes as South Dakota surpassed 9,000 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, and detractors on social media — including the rally’s Facebook page — were quick to point out that these numbers were likely to increase as tourists congregated in Sturgis from all across America. Others speculated that the surge in visitors could have a harmful impact on nearby Lakota communities coping with the coronavirus. Travel restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have already been placed on two nearby tribal lands — the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Cheyenne River Reservation.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a massive local moneymaker, with attendants spending an estimated $800 million in previous years. The South Dakota Department of Revenue collected over $1 million in taxes alone for the event in 2019.
The first Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was in 1938. The next three years were skipped due to gasoline rationing during World War II, but the rally returned in 1942 and has been held annually since, according to a timeline on the event’s website — which highlights 2020 as a year for the rally’s “80th Anniversary held during a viral pandemic.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that in a survey, 60% of Sturgis residents were against canceling the rally. In reality, about 63% of locals were in favor of canceling.