Sturgis Bike Rally is again regardless of the Delta variant: NPR

During last year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, people gather in One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon. The annual event has been blamed for an increase in COVID cases and is taking place again this year. Stephen Groves / AP Hide caption

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Stephen Groves / AP

During last year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, people gather in One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon. The annual event has been blamed for an increase in COVID cases and is taking place again this year.

Stephen Groves / AP

SIOUX FALLS, SD – Crowds of bikers are rumbling towards South Dakota’s Black Hills this week, raising fears that COVID-19 infections will be triggered among the 700,000 people expected at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

The rally, which begins on Friday, has become a haven for those looking to escape coronavirus precautions. Last year, the rally hardly slowed down with around 460,000 participants. Masks were largely thrown away as bikers huddled into bars, tattoo parlors, and rock shows giving a lesson on how massive gatherings could spread waves of the virus across the country.

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“It’s great to see a party with hundreds of thousands of people,” said Zoltán Vári, a rally visitor who settled at his campsite on Tuesday after doing the hike from Hungary.

He was dying to ride a Harley-Davidson through the Black Hills again after going missing last year. Vári circumvented travel restrictions on US tourism in Europe by spending two weeks in Costa Rica before heading to South Dakota. He hopes 1 million people will show up. The typical number of visitors is around half a million.

The town of Sturgis, usually a sleepy parish of fewer than 7,000 residents, tried to contain things last year by canceling most of the town-sponsored events and promotions, but hordes of bikers showed up anyway.

“The rally is a giant and there is no stopping it,” said Carol Fellner, a local who feared this year’s event would cause another outbreak of cases. “I feel absolutely powerless.”

This year the city is hugging the crowds. Republican Governor Kristi Noem has blessed the rally and will take part in a charity drive. The event is a boon to tourism and has sales of over $ 800 million, according to the state Department of Tourism.

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The rally takes place while other huge summer events – from state fairs to music festivals like Lollapalooza – return to the U.S. arena – estimated at 100,000 in one night – during their push to the NBA championship.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally defenders argue that open air is abundant on the meandering highways and campsites frequented by many bikers. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in a published study that the 2020 rally “had many of the characteristics of a superspreading event”.

Rally goers argued that the coronavirus was just another risk after years of driving Harleys. Five motorcyclists were killed in accidents at the 2020 Rally, and one fatal accident has already been reported this year.

The attitude was summed up on a T-shirt sold last year: “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.”

But public health experts warned the massive gathering woke the virus well beyond those who chose to attend. A team of economists argued that the rally sparked a chain reaction that resulted in 250,000 cases across the country. However, this paper has not been peer-reviewed and has been criticized by some top epidemiologists – as well as some cyclists – for overestimating the rally’s impact.

People fill a bar during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota in August 2020. Stephen Groves / AP Hide caption

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Stephen Groves / AP

People fill a bar during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota in August 2020.

Stephen Groves / AP

While it is not clear how many falls could be attributed to last year’s rally, it coincided with the start of a steep climb in the Great Plains that eventually culminated in a deadly winter.

The gathering could potentially fuel a new wave of infections that is currently rocking hospitalizations in parts of the south, said Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“I understand how people want to get away from this pandemic – God knows I want to – but the reality is that it cannot be ignored,” he said. “You can’t just tell the virus you’re done with it.”

The current fall rate in South Dakota is roughly half what it was in the days leading up to the rally last year. The number of deaths has also decreased significantly.

COVID-19 vaccines give hope the rally won’t trigger the spread of the virus, but it’s not clear how many in the Sturgis crowd were injected. Unlike events like Lollapalooza, which required attendees to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, the precautions at Sturgis are minimal and optional. The biggest step the city has taken has been to allow rally visitors to drink in public on the grounds that it will spread the bacchanalia in the open air.

According to the CDC, only about 46% of adults in the county where Sturgis is housed are fully vaccinated, compared with 60.6% nationwide. According to an analysis of cell phone data by the Center for New Data, vaccination rates were similarly low in the five counties where most of the rally goers came in 2020. Only one – Maricopa County, Arizona – cracked 50%. Campbell County, Wyoming has the lowest rate at 27%.

Vári, the biker from Hungary, said he was fully vaccinated – but only because he mistakenly believed he needed proof of vaccination to enter the United States

“Sturgis or Bust,” he wrote on Facebook.

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