After much anticipation, the 80th annual is here. For those of us not attending, the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum has set up a webcam outside its location at the intersection of Main Street and Junction Avenue to observe the festivities. I've spent some time watching it this week, and after attending myself last year it's a very familiar sight. Lots of bikes, lots of big American cruisers and baggers, lots of leather, and lots of people, just like last year.
That's the problem.
The world has fundamentally changed in the past year thanks to COVID-19. Literally every event I planned to attend this year has been canceled. While masks and social distancing are encouraged for health reasons, they've become a political debate rather than a scientific one. After several months in a lockdown that also tanked the economy (ironically, except for motorcycle sales), many places have opened up again despite not having the coronavirus under control, sending infections and deaths spiking upward.
It is in this world that the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place. So far, South Dakota has not been hit particularly hard by the virus. At the time of writing, the New York Times reports a total of 9,371 cases and 144 deaths. While not an insignificant number, it pales in comparison to places like New York, which got hit hard early on, and Florida, where it's spreading rapidly right now.
The problem is that it is from these places with higher rates of infection that people are traveling to Sturgis. According to South Dakota Tourism, there are currently no travel restrictions for people visiting from out-of-state. The Rapid City Journal, however, reports that the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is not allowing visitors to pass through their reservation. This isn't too close to Sturgis, though, and there are many ways around it, so it won't prevent people from attending.
While local businesses pushed for the rally to continue as normal, major manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle have significantly reduced their presence. Earlier this week we reported on Indian's measures, with an update that only four employees, who volunteered for the task, are attending, rather their usual 50. Indian normally runs a huge operation on Lazelle Street, where I spent some time last year trying a few bikes and borrowing a Springfield Dark Horse for the week. Harley is going one step further and has sent no one to Sturgis, and issued the following statement:
"Harley-Davidson is the official motorcycle of the Sturgis 80th Motorcycle Rally. We will be focusing our on-the-ground support in ways that are consistent with our health and safety goals instead of large consumer activations. This support will amplify the hallmark experience of Sturgis, which is rooted in riding and the spectacular roads of the Black Hills."
Rather, it is the attendees themselves who are making light of the situation. The webcam shows that virtually no one is wearing a mask, nor social distancing—not that social distancing is really possible in the center of town. It's a hotbed of potential contagion. With 250,000 people expected to attend and even a 1-percent death rate, by the numbers that means 2,500 Sturgis attendees could die from COVID-19—perhaps more since most aren't taking even basic safety precautions.
What concerns me most, however, is what happens after Sturgis. People gather from all over, mingle, then go home, potentially bringing the virus with them. The 2,500 who get sick as a result of direct contact at Sturgis is one thing. How many people they, as well as an unknown number of asymptomatic carriers, will affect back home is quite another.
"If we get it, we chose to be here," quotes the New York Times headline. Indeed, as riders, we accept that anytime we get on a bike could be our last ride. The difference is that if I crash and die, I've only taken myself out. I accepted that risk and took it. Friends, family, and co-workers of people attending Sturgis did not sign up for this. Many of them don't even ride motorcycles, yet could become sick or even die as a result of someone they know attending the rally.
This one event could cause numbers to spike even more rapidly nationwide. That's why this has become national news, beyond motorcycle outlets like us. It's not just about us. This could affect everyone.