Sturgis rally waits for 250K, sparking coronavirus concerns

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SIOUX FALLS, SD – Sturgis is on.

The message was broadcast on social media as South Dakota, which has seen an increase in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of bikers for the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

More than 250,000 people are expected to move through western South Dakota, seeking the freedom to roam the boundless landscapes in a state that has avoided lockdowns. The August 7-16 event, which could be the largest to date during the pandemic, will offer businesses that depend on the rally a chance to offset losses caused by the coronavirus. But for many Sturgis, a city of around 7,000, overflowing bars and bacchanalia will not be welcome during a pandemic.

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Although only half the usual number of people is expected at this year’s event, residents have been divided as the city weighed its options. Many feared the rally could cause an unmanageable outbreak of COVID-19.

“It’s a huge, stupid mistake to host the rally this year. The Sturgis government should care about its citizens the most. ”

– Lynelle Chapman, resident of Sturgis, at the June city council meeting

“It’s a huge, stupid mistake to make in hosting the rally this year,” Sturgis resident Lynelle Chapman told city councilors at a meeting in June. “The Sturgis government needs to care about its citizens the most. ”

In a city survey of residents, more than 60% said the rally should be postponed. But businesses have pressured city council to continue.

Rallies have spent around $ 800 million in recent years, according to the State Department of Tourism. Although the rally has an ignominious history of biker gangs and lawlessness, bikers of a different type have come forward in recent years – well-to-do professionals who ride for leisure and are full of money. Although the rally still features libertine exhibits, it also features charity events and tributes to military and veterans.

The lawyer for a tourist souvenir wholesaler in Rapid City wrote to city council to recall that a judge had concluded that the city did not only own the rights to the rally and threatened to sue if the city tried to postpone it. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Chip, which is the largest campground and concert venue outside of the city limits, has made it clear it will host a version of the rally.

FILE – In this photo from August 1, 2014, the streets of the town of Sturgis are lined with motorcycles a few days before the official kick-off of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, SD Preparations are underway for the rally’s 75th anniversary as of Monday, August 3, 2015, where the organizers plan to host up to one million people. (AP Photo / Toby Brusseau, file)
(The Associated Press)

Rod Woodruff, who operates the Buffalo Chip, said he feels he has no choice but to proceed with the rally. It employs hundreds of people in August and a smaller full-time staff.

“We spend money for 355 days of the year without any return on it, hoping people show up for nine days,” he said. “We’re a nine-day business. ”

Woodruff felt he could safely organize an event, allowing people to keep their distance from each other during outdoor concerts at his campsite. He said he was emboldened by the July 3 fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore, where 7,500 people gathered without any reported outbreaks after the event, according to health officials.

Ultimately, Sturgis officials realized that the rally would take place whether they wanted to or not. They decided to try to reduce it, cancel the events organized by the city and reduce the publicity for the rally.

Jerry Cole, who leads the rally for the city, said organizers did not know how many people would show up, but expected at least 250,000. Travel restrictions from Canada and other countries have reduces a significant portion of potential visitors, he said.

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Others believe the rally could be the biggest yet.

“This is the biggest single event taking place in the United States that hasn’t been canceled,” Woodruff said. “A lot of people think it’s going to be bigger than ever.”

Once the rally is over, the city weighs all the garbage generated annually to estimate the number of people who showed up. This year, they’ll also be doing mass coronavirus testing to see if all of those people brought the pandemic to Sturgis.

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