250K Bikers in One Place. What Could Go Wrong?

The virus doesn't seem to bother motorcycle enthusiasts in Sturgis, South Dakota
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 8, 2020 1:30 PM CDT
Massive Motorbike Rally Underway Amid Pandemic
This Aug. 2, 2019 photo shows Heavy traffic on legendary Main Street in Sturgis, South Dakota. The city, which has seen an uptick in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, is bracing to host hundreds of thousands of bikers for the 80th edition of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.   (Jim Holland/Rapid City Journal via AP)

Thousands of people are pouring into a small South Dakota city for an event that normally attracts 500,000—this time, during a pandemic. "I think it's pretty selfish that the powers that be didn't stop this," a Sturgis resident tells NBC News. But the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which dates back to 1938, attracts a hefty amount of cash that far exceeds the city's annual budget. ABC News explains that Sturgis (population, 7,000) raked in $26 million at last year's rally while the state banked an extra $655 million, often from visitors eager to open their wallets for pricey items like motor homes and motorbikes. "That's a lot of money for a small state," says City Manager Daniel Ainslie. Might be less this time, with officials projecting a crowd about half the usual size.

There will be efforts to curb the coronavirus—hand sanitizer, mass testing, city volunteers to shop for visitors—but social distancing seems unlikely and motorcycle enthusiasts aren't exactly known to follow rules. "Those who attend are mavericks," says Joel Heitkamp, a rally fan and radio-show host. "This is the rebel crowd." Injecting an air of caution, doctors have added 172 extra coronavirus beds and 1,300 tests for asymptomatic people concerned about their health. Legally, it's a wash: South Dakota never imposed lockdown or mask rules, so no laws are being broken. The state currently has a low number of COVID-19 cases but a testing positivity rate between 8% and 9%, higher than the 5% that WHO considers the maximum for reopening, per CNN. (Read more coronavirus stories.)

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