Friday is the official start of the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where 250,000 people are expected to gather in the South Dakota town of that name for nine days of defying proven precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
“Nobody is social distancing and none of them are wearing masks,” local psychologist Michael Fellner told The Daily Beast. “None.”
Fellner is originally from Brooklyn in New York City, which was once the nation’s COVID-19 epicenter but has just reported three straight days without a single death from the virus. The transformation is almost certainly the result of the same precautions the bikers in Sturgis are ignoring.
The Sturgis Rally’s own official website has a “COVID tracker” tab that links to the South Dakota Health Department site, where offerings include a risk assessment for public gatherings.
“Highest risk: Large, in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from multiple areas,” it advises.
As the rally’s Facebook page attests, the bikers come from across the country.
“Leaving from NH today. See ya soon!” posted Howard Saborn of New Hampshire.
“Coming for the 1st time on Saturday from Virginia,” Vickie Farmer announced.
“On our way now. Stopped in Missouri to sleep. Be there Thursday night,” Jesse Robison of Georgia posted.
“Be there Friday from San Angelo Tx.,” David Buckner said.
“On my way I ain’t scared of the media flue or as we call it round here election flue see ya soon sd,” J.F. Watson of Ohio said.
“Just call it a big protest !! And it be A-Ok!!” J. Toothman, also of Ohio, suggested.
Rod Florquest of Wyoming was among the thousands who had arrived early.
“You really have to look to see someone wearing a mask,” he reported, as though this was a good thing.
And, having come from seemingly everywhere with whatever virus they might happen to carry, they will all mingle and return home with any virus they happen to pick up. Some will have purchased one of the souvenir T-shirts that retired school counselor Linda Chaplin of Sturgis saw a street vendor selling. The front reads:
I came to Sturgis”
That is far from what the 70-year-old Chaplin imagined when she initially learned of the pandemic.
“One of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh, we won’t have the rally this year,’” she told The Daily Beast.
She allows that she is “not a rally person,” having in the past hopped on a bicycle to negotiate the annual gridlock of Harleys. But she understands the economic importance of the event to the town, having in past years picked up some extra money sewing patches on jackets. She nonetheless did not expect her town to prize livelihoods over lives.
“I was rather aghast that our little town was still planning to go ahead with the rally,” she said.
Chaplin was among the citizens who addressed Mayor Mark Carstensen and the City Council at a June 10 hearing about the rally. Chaplin was not speaking to strangers. She used to change the mayor’s diapers when he was a toddler and childhood friend of her daughter.
“It is my deepest conviction that this is a huge, foolish mistake to make to host the rally this year," Chaplin said at the hearing. “The government of Sturgis needs to care most for its citizens.”
She offered a solution to the rally problem: “Have a bigger one next year.”
Other speakers included ICU nurse Linda Janovy, who said the regional medical facilities are not equipped to handle an outbreak.
“We have freedom, but we also have responsibility,” she said. “You are not going to make everybody happy. Your responsibility is to keep the public safe, as safe as you can.”
Then came Lynn Burke, a nurse at the local VA facility.
“What’s the price of human life?” she asked. “I hear a lot of people saying we’re going to lose money. What about the lives we’re going to lose?”
But several local business people spoke of how dependent they are on the revenue generated by the rally. And there were also folks such as a lifelong Sturgis resident named Bob Davis.
“Freedom, God, and Donald Trump,” he said.
The City Council had never considered whether or not to approve the rally because that had never been a question. There had only been the formality of approving the necessary road closures. The council did so again on June 15 even though a survey showed that 60 percent of Sturgis residents favored canceling this year's rally.
Sturgis officials sought to calm rally opponents by saying the city was seeking to reduce the turnout by curtailing the usual advertising. The official Sturgis website nonetheless listed various exciting events for anyone tempted to attend. There was this:
“JOIN US AUGUST 10TH, 2020 FOR THE 18TH ANNUAL MAYOR’S RIDE!! The City of Sturgis is excited to be hosting the 18th Annual Sturgis Mayor’s Ride during the 80th Annual City of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally! This ride has been a special part of the City of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally; not only for the amazing beauty of the Black Hills but that it brings people together from all over the word [world].”
The ultimate justification offered by the mayor and other city officials was that the hordes of bikers were going to come anyway. They noted that Rod Woodruff, owner of the Buffalo Chip campground and concert venue, had announced his intention to be open for a 39th consecutive rally. The campground’s Facebook page had this posting with a message from a Hollywood actor:
“Hey there, Tom Berenger here. Have you heard? Well, my friend Rod Woodruff at the Buffalo Chip let me know that Sturgis 2020, the 80th anniversary, is ON! I don’t know about you, but I’m packin’ her up here. I hope to see ya out there. God bless America. And God bless the Buffalo Chip.”
The Buffalo Chip is the area’s biggest, a biker mecca. It is also just outside the city limits and an incorporated town unto itself. Sturgis could do nothing to regulate it.
“We’re just celebrating good old American freedom,” Woodruff told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
He said he had unfolded the world’s largest American flag on July 3, so Trump could see it while flying over on the way to the event at nearby Mount Rushmore.
Even though the rally did not officially begin until Friday, bikes had started to arrive mid-week.
“What a release to hear the sound of Harley-Davidson engines in the campground again,” Woodruff said. “Just marvelous.”
He figured the turnout would at least equal—maybe exceed—last year’s. He has had several bands cancel on him in recent weeks as a result of COVID-19 concerns, but others had signed on. And he had additional events such as the Lingerie Fighting Championship.
The producer of the all-woman lingerie event, Sean Donnelly, assured The Daily Beast that the participants had been offered a chance to opt out of the rally. He added that they would be staying at a hotel 30 miles away in Rapid City and would be bused in two hours before the bouts, returning directly to the hotel afterwards. They would have custom-designed masks.
“Not a bad look,” Donnelly said. “Of course, they won’t be fighting in them.”
Few of the quarter-million people expected to attend the rally will likely be doing anything in masks. A shopkeeper friend of Chaplin’s made an attempt at humor on Facebook.
“Welcome rally goers, we’re dying to serve you,” the shopkeeper posted.
“Not funny,” Chaplin replied.
Chaplin and her husband usually leave town during the rally and decided to depart two days early this year. She will return to a county where there have been only 82 COVID-19 cases, but there is no telling what the rally will leave behind besides piles of garbage by which the city estimates the number of attendees. She has a son and a daughter who teach in the Sturgis schools and grandchildren who attend them.
To add to her worries, Gov. Kristi Noem has declared that all South Dakota families should send their kids back to school without masks.
“We believe that when it comes to children, masks have the potential to do more harm than good,” Noem wrote in a fundraising email.
During an appearance on The Ingraham Angle on Fox News, Noem voiced support for the rally.
“We know we could have these events, get people information, let them protect their health, but still enjoy their way of life and enjoy events like the Sturgis motorcycle rally,” she said.
Michael Fellner and his wife, Carol, will wait out the rally in self-quarantine on their eight acres just outside of town.
“I think this year we are on the road to making a super-spreading event,” she said. “Not just for your state, not just for your region, but for your country. That’s my statement.”
Michael said of the rally, “The sad thing is that you find common sense is not as common as people believe.”
He suggested what deprived Sturgis of that sense.
“I hate to put it that way, but it’s the smell of money.”
Michael noted that one of his daughters and her husband are Broadway actors. The daughter had already taken a break to concentrate on being a mom. The son-in-law lost a starring role when Broadway shut down.
“He’s now selling insurance,” Michael said.
The consolation is that the virus has been brought under control in New York, as it likely could be everywhere if everyone followed the city’s example.
But COVID can just as easily spike anywhere that example is ignored. And the virus might be spreading across the country on motorcycles by the end of next week.
“This is going to be just the start of it,” Linda Chaplin said.