Crowds of bikers are rumbling their way towards South Dakota’s Black Hills this week, raising fears that COVID-19 infections will be unleashed among the 700,000 people expected to show up at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
The rally, which starts Friday, has become a haven for those eager to escape coronavirus precautions. Last year, the rally hardly slowed down, with roughly 460,000 people attending. Masks were mostly ditched as bikers crowded into bars, tattoo parlors and rock shows, offering a lesson in how massive gatherings could spread waves of the virus across the country.
This year — the 81st iteration of the rally — is expected to be even bigger, drawing people from around the U.S. and beyond, despite concerns about the virus’ highly contagious delta variant.
“It’s great to see a party of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Zoltán Vári, a rallygoer who was settling into his campsite Tuesday after making the trek from Hungary.
He was eager to return to riding a Harley-Davidson through the Black Hills after missing last year. Vári evaded U.S. tourism travel restrictions on Europe by spending two weeks in Costa Rica before making his way to South Dakota. He hopes 1 million people will show up. Typical attendance is around a half a million.
The city of Sturgis, usually a sleepy community of under 7,000, tried to tamp things down last year, canceling most city-sponsored events and promotion, but hordes of bikers showed up anyway.
“The rally is a behemoth, and you cannot stop it,” said Carol Fellner, a local who worried that this year’s event would cause a fresh outbreak of cases. “I feel absolutely powerless.”
This year, the city is embracing the crowds. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has given the rally her blessing and will appear in a charity ride. The event is a boon for tourism, powering over $800 million in sales, according to the state Department of Tourism.