STURGIS, S.D. (KELO/CNN) — South Dakota has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country. But, some experts think that’s about to change. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to arrive in the town of Sturgis for an iconic motorcycle rally this weekend.
For about 80 years, the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota has been wildly popular. “Oh we’re really excited. This is our 18th year coming,” said one rider, “number 18 for us. We don’t miss it. We come every year.”
About 500,000 people showed up last year. And, despite fears that it will be a super-spreader for coronavirus this year, some 250-thousand are expected to pack the small town of Sturgis when the rally gets underway this weekend. “We cannot stop people from coming, said Mayor Mark Carstensen, “Dakota’s been a free state through this whole process, and we’ve had a tremendous amount of visitors already.”
Sturgis’s mayor says town officials are asking people to distance, to maintain hygiene, to act responsibly.
But they’re not requiring rally-goers to wear masks. An official from nearby Rapid City, who’s pleaded, fruitlessly, for this year’s Sturgis rally to be canceled, is at her wit’s end. “they’re not going to be able to handle any kind of social-distancing. There’s a significant amount of alcohol involved. It’s a huge party. they can infect our native American populations, our law enforcement, potentially our bar staff, our tourist attractions, our hotels, our motels, even our grocery stores,” said Laura Armstrong, President, Rapid City, South Dakota, Common Council.
One infectious disease expert, Dr. Carlos Del Rio of Emory University School of Medicine, says the probability of an outbreak stemming from the Sturgis rally Is, “very high. I’m not worried about the rally itself. I’m worried about the parties and the other things that are going to happen after the rally. So I think because of that, I’m quite concerned that this event could potentially be a disaster. There could not only be a lot of transmission there, but a lot of people can get infected there and go back to their home states and their home cities and take the virus over there.”
Concerts will be held, just about every night- during the more-than-week-long rally. More opportunities for transmission. A recent survey of Sturgis residents showed, 60-percent of them did not want the event held this year.
Town officials say it was a tough decision, but they went ahead and approved it anyway, possibly because, according to many estimates, the rally brings in hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. This could be one of the largest mass gatherings in the entire country during the pandemic.
Dr. Del Rio says these events simply have to stop for now, “I think very large events like this one should be canceled this year…you say we’ve held this for the last 80-years. Well you know, we haven’t had a pandemic like this one in the last hundred years.”
A large state fair is scheduled to take place after the rally. Then, it’ll be labor day weekend and back-to-school time. That nearby common council presidents calls it a sequence of “insanity.”
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