Sturgis Motorcycle Rally causes dramatic increase in South Dakota COVID-19 cases

sturgis rally covid cases
Photo via bk1bennett/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a massive annual gathering of bikers in South Dakota, is being blamed for a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases that one newspaper columnist dubbed “a big middle finger to caution and good sense.”

According to CBS News, the ten-day rally was held Aug. 6-15. In the three-week period between Aug. 4 and 25, the case numbers in Meade County — where the rally took place — jumped from 657 to 3,655 active cases, representing a 456% rise. Meade County also lags well behind the state’s 55% full vaccination rate, with less than 30% of its population having been inoculated.

It appears the effects of the rally extended beyond just the county where the bikers congregated, which lies in the western part of the state near the Wyoming border. The entire state of South Dakota saw a weekly positivity rate of 38.8% as of Aug. 24, compared to 10.38% during the week leading up to the rally, July 30 to Aug. 6.

The Daily Beast, in its reporting on the rally and its aftermath, observed, “The state more broadly has witnessed a 686.8% increase in daily case counts over the past three weeks, currently more than 10 times the nationwide rate. Meade County’s post-Sturgis uptick is certainly a contributor to this state-level increase, but neighboring counties have experienced a sharp incline in cases, too — ranging from a 1,900% increase in the past three weeks in Butte to a 1,050% increase in Lawrence.”

The rally didn’t establish protocols about vaccinations or negative tests as a condition for attendance.

“We’re not going to start checking papers. I mean, that’s not really an American way,” Daniel Ainslie, Sturgis’s city manager, said.

As noted by CBS News, “​​Last year, the motorcycle rally received scrutiny for welcoming half a million bikers from across the country to what was considered a ‘superspreader’ event. About three weeks after the 2020 rally kicked off, more than 100 cases of COVID-19 connected to the rally were reported in at least eight states.”

The Washington Post noted a similar pattern with this year’s rally, reporting that contact tracing in South Dakota connected 16 cases to the event. North Dakota additionally connected 42 cases, Wyoming connected 32, Wisconsin connected 20, and Minnesota connected 13 cases back to the event.

“The 123 cases among the five states almost certainly represent an undercount because the rally concluded less than two weeks ago and contact tracing is challenging in connection with an event that lures attendees from around the country,” the article observed.

“We knew this was going to happen,” Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health in Rapid City, about 30 miles southeast of Sturgis, said. “It happened last year. It was just playing a reboot of last year pretty much.”

The Daily Beast contrasted the Sturgis gathering with this summer’s Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, which was widely praised for its protocols aiming to bring people together without adversely affecting COVID case numbers.

The Daily Beast noted that “Lollapalooza was guided by health officials in enacting and enforcing a multi-layered COVID-19 safety protocol,” while “the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally took place in a state where government has been largely apathetic in its pandemic response. In late July, mere weeks prior to the rally she attended herself, Gov. Kristi Noem went so far as to say that she had ‘no plans’ to encourage vaccination among her constituents.”

Shawn Vestal, writing in the Spokesman-Review, pointed out that “the rally proceeded as planned — with the sale of defiant ‘Screw COVID. I Went to Sturgis’ T-shirts added to the usual mix of outdoor rallies and packed bars. As predicted, there was a surge of infections that followed rally-goers home all over the country.”

Vestal, responsible for the colorful description in this story’s lead, noted that “The rally just happened again, wide open as hell. The governor has continued to deny and resist, flatly claiming, incorrectly, that last year’s rally was not a superspreader event, and refusing to rally behind efforts to get more shots into arms in her very-under-vaccinated state. Of course, that makes her a hero to some, considered a possible contender for higher office in a party where taking the pandemic seriously is a liability.”

Bemoaning the partisan nature of the public health discourse, he added, “The parallel narratives are entrenched, and we’re all entrenched in the results.”

Sources: CBS News, Daily Beast, Washington Post, Spokesman-Review

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