Was there a coronavirus outbreak at the Sturgis motorcycle rally? (Updated)

Sturgis outbreak coronavirus south dakota
Photo via Tim Vrtiska/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
  • The motorcycle rally ran from Aug. 7-16, and reportedly, most were maskless
  • More than 460,000 vehicles entered the city limits during the rally
  • A study that came out Sept. 8 reported shocking new numbers

The first few cases of COVID-19 connected to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August have been reported by South Dakota state officials, and it’s leading some to wonder if there will be a full-on Sturgis outbreak of the coronavirus. 

On Aug. 20, Department of Health officials said less than 25 people connected to the rally had tested positive for the virus, according to the Associated Press. At least two of the reported cases were people who spent a considerable amount of time in public, densely populated areas. 

But on Sept. 8, a study came out that said 20% of all new cases in the U.S. (about 260,000 out of 1.2 million new cases) were tied to the rally. The study, conducted by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, said the new cases connected to Sturgis would cost an estimated $12.2 billion in healthcare costs. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said the study was ‘fiction.’ She also called it “back-of-the-napkin math.”

Hosted annually, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began Aug. 7 and lasted for 10 days. Throughout that time, the Washington Post reported,  462,182 vehicles entered the city limits. 

With just a 7.5% drop in attendance from 2019, the data suggests the pandemic did not turn off attendees. Multiple first-hand accounts report large crowds filled with folks who did not attempt to socially distance or wear a mask. 

According to the Post, a person who visited the popular One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon for five hours on one day of the rally tested positive for COVID-19. Another person who worked in the tattoo shop inside the bar for at least five days of the rally tested positive as well. 

Additionally, an employee at a bar in Hill City—a popular stop for bikers traveling to the rally— tested positive after working Aug. 9- 11. 

These three people could have unknowingly infected dozens of people, like the South Korean man who caused at least 24 COVID-19 infections after he went to five nightclubs while infected with the virus in May. 

Epidemiologist Josh Clayton told the AP that South Dakota has begun to receive reports from other states about people who traveled to the rally testing positive upon returning home. NBC News reported that Nebraska recorded at least seven COVID-19 cases within its borders that it can trace back to the rally, not unlike what happened after the Las Vegas casinos reopened and potentially sent the virus back home when its visitors left Nevada. 

On Aug. 26, it was reported that officials in eight states had connected more than 100 coronavirus cases to the rally. Since then, those numbers have obviously grown exponentially.

Some analysts say experts will never know the real impact of the event and if there actually was a Sturgis outbreak. Benjamin Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, told the Washington Post that there are probably many infections that will never be reported to state officials. Not everyone who gets sick will get tested, so it will be hard to trace back future infections “further down those chains of transmission.” 

Local officials don’t seem too worried about the consequences. Christina Steele, a spokeswoman for the city of Sturgis, told the newspaper that she was not concerned about the new infections. 

“It could be one or two, could be more,” Steele said. “But you know, it’s to be expected. Coronavirus is in South Dakota. It has been for months.”

As of Aug. 28, there hasn’t been a mass outbreak in the city that hosts the rally. “We’re very happy that our mitigation efforts seem to have worked and that there was very little spread into numerous businesses in our count, and there’s very little spread among our employees in whole, which is very good news,” Sturgis city manager Daniel Ainslie told KOTA TV on Aug. 28.

According to the South Dakota coronavirus dashboard, the state has reported more than 15,400 COVID-19 infections and more than 170 deaths, as of Sept. 8.

Sources: AP, Washington Post, NPR, CDC, NBC News, South Dakota Department of Health

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