Sturgis Rally Death Cult Pits Nurses Against Panicked Docs
Last year was widely derided as a disaster. But health-care workers here are far from united on the eve of this year’s rally, which is fueled by a tradition of local bloodlust.
They come for the beauty, the beer, and the concerts featuring faded rock stars. They do not come for the COVID-19—though that may not be up to them after last year’s event was widely derided as a superspreader fiasco.
Still, health-care workers in the region were far from united on the eve of this year’s rally, which thanks to a history of crime and renewed pandemic danger can take on the specter of Great Plains bloodlust.
Sturgis emergency-room nurse manager Rikki Plaggemeyer, 46, and registered nurse Jamie Lascelles, 30, have their concerns about the festivities. But they are decidedly in favor of a tradition they themselves often take part in.
“Living in Sturgis, I do hear [of] people that live here that don’t love the rally,” Plaggemeyer told The Daily Beast. “If you don’t like to live in Sturgis, and you don’t like the Sturgis Rally, you shouldn’t live here. It gives us great experiences in the ER and in the hospital, and I spend most of my time during the rally here.”
The nurses are no coronavirus truthers—they wear masks while at work and expect patients to do so. They explained that last year, there were a few people who didn’t want to put one on, only to be told the hospital could refuse service.
“We generally can talk them into wearing it,” Plaggemeyer said. “Most of the time they will comply. I don’t think we’ve ever had issues of people not getting treatment because of it.”
Lascelles added, “We do have some that don’t approve of it. And it’s unfortunate, but that’s just kind of where we live.”
The rally has been going on since 1938, and a record crowd of more than 750,000 people is possible, organizers say. Most are expected to be without masks in crowded conditions, and there is no requirement to show proof of vaccinations despite the coronavirus pandemic enjoying a national resurgence fueled by the extra-contagious Delta variant.
If the nurses are psyched, some of their colleagues in the state’s medical profession are downright spooked.
Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health in Rapid City, told The Daily Beast there is a “very high risk” of multiple people being infected with COVID-19 during the rally.
“My concern would be with the Delta variant, which as we know is highly transmissible,” said Dr. Kurra, 54.
He pointed to other large gatherings that appeared to produce a surge of cases in recent weeks, such as a Fourth of July celebration in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and when Milwaukee Bucks fans celebrated the team’s NBA championship. Both of those occurred in states with higher vaccination rates than South Dakota.
“The fact is, it’s a mass gathering event,” he said of the rally. “It puts people at risk. That’s the nature of this virus.”
Monument Health will make numerous doses of vaccine available across the Black Hills at urgent-care facilities and emergency rooms. It also is handing out free testing kits that can be self-administered, or offering testing at ERs, according to Kurra.
Dr. Halie Anderson said Kurra has provided useful information on the risks involved with this event and has been a strong advocate for prevention and caution. Like him, she has concerns about the 2021 rally.
“The rally has a lot of benefits for the area, and it benefits the economy,” she said. “But I think this has the potential to do a lot of harm.”
Dr. Anderson, who grew up in Spearfish in the northern Black Hills, is an allergist and immunologist in Rapid City. The 36-year-old has been a doctor for 10 years, the last three and a half in Rapid City. When she was younger, she attended concerts during the rally and enjoyed the events.
Now she worries about the impact.
“I wish we were able to implement social distancing opportunities a little better,” Dr. Anderson said. “I think it’s always concerning when you’re bringing a lot of people into an area.”
South Dakota Department of Health spokesman Daniel Bucheli said the agency was keeping a close eye on the rally.
“We had 125 COVID-19 cases that reported Sturgis Rally attendance last year,” Bucheli told The Daily Beast. “Anytime you have a large group of people come together, there are risks, but with the proper precautions and mitigation practices, it can be done safely.”
“The Department of Health is working with Monument Health and local partners to provide free COVID-19 Antigen tests to rally goers who are interested in obtaining one,” he added. “These 15-minute tests can detect the presence of viral antigens related to the COVID-19 virus and thus slow virus spread. Additionally, there is enough vaccine supply in the region to fulfill demand of area residents and visitors.”
Of course, being vaccinated upon arrival will do little to ward off potential infection given the time the shots take to work. And Bucheli’s response was less than effusive when asked about mask-use among a traditionally skeptical crowd.
“Mask usage is just one of many mitigation risk factors people can employ against COVID-19,” he said. “Wearing a mask is a personal choice, but when used alongside other mitigation strategies (hand washing, physical distancing, etc.) it increases protection.”
Natalie Slack, a resident of nearby Rapid City, said that, like the notorious 2020 Rally, this year’s event seemed unnecessarily risky.
“I think the big concern is that this is a gathering of mostly anti-vaxxers, or people who are so intent on celebrating freedom that they sometimes neglect the care and concern for the community they're visiting/invading,” Slack said. “I feel some level of safety in the vaccine—in knowing that even IF we get sick, we likely won't get as ill as we may have otherwise.”
But she is worried about her parents, David and Kay LaFrance. Both are 65 and are being treated for cancer, and while they’ve been vaccinated, that is no guarantee of safety.
“My concern is primarily for them as they navigate how to be and where to go through this mayhem,” said Slack, 36, a married mother of three teenagers, all vaccinated, who owns her own marketing firm.
Coronavirus cases jumped in South Dakota in the last week, just as hundreds of thousands of bikers began to arrive in the state. The number of cases increased 68 percent, with 429 more people infected, including 41 known cases of the Delta variant. That brought the total number of people with known COVID-19 cases in the state to 657, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.
Seven more people died in the last week, according to state figures, bringing the toll to 2,050 since the pandemic began in the early spring of 2020.
Of course, the coronavirus isn’t the only health risk posed by the rally.
“We see quite a bit of alcohol intoxication as well,” Plaggemeyer said. “Which is to be expected.”
“We do see our fair share of drug use and alcohol use,” Lascelles agreed.
Several million dollars in drugs are off the market, however.
Local law enforcement agencies, as part of a long-running investigation, executed search warrants at three locations Tuesday and seized 72 pounds of methamphetamine, 10 pounds of cocaine, 6 pounds of heroin, 6,000 counterfeit fentanyl pills, $150,000 in illegal drug sale proceeds, and 13 guns, some altered and short-barreled, according to the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.
Joni Ornes Bruch, 63, a retired nurse, has lived in Sturgis since 1978. She embraces the rally and works at the Hog Heaven Campground during it.
Bruch said calling it off wouldn’t do any good.
“They would be here whether it was canceled or not,” she said. “If canceled, there would not be the additional law enforcement or EMS, etc., staffing. I don’t know of any health-care workers who wanted it canceled.”
It’s a local tradition and a cherished state event. Politicians routinely appear on stage with rock bands, and locals anticipate the event, raising hotel rates and raking in huge windfalls of cash.
But another tradition is death.
Last year, five people died during the rally, four in vehicle crashes. That’s down from past years, when the toll topped 10 or more. People in the area understand not everyone who comes to the rally will make it home. It’s a grim fact that is accepted as part of the experience.
David Super, a retired journalist who also worked as a military public-affairs officer and Department of Defense contractor before returning to the Black Hills, said deaths are part of the equation.
“Unless it’s a member of your family or social circle, locals might pause for a ‘too bad’ moment, but otherwise it’s just another biker,” the 74-year-old told The Daily Beast. “In years past, where there were more violent or drug-related deaths, then locals would spend a few more moments, but we don’t dwell on the topic.”
Looming large over the festivities is Gov. Kristi Noem, who has routinely defied health experts with pandemic recklessness. In a tweet Wednesday, she said the people who come to the rally accept the inherent dangers.
“The Sturgis rally is about hopping on your bike and exploring this great country through our open roads,” Noem tweeted. “Bikers come here because they WANT to be here. And we love to see them! There’s a risk associated with everything that we do in life. Bikers get that better than anyone.”
In a 2014 Rapid City Journal story, a Black Hills family discussed the rally dead pool they had been playing for seven years. For $5, people picked a number of fatalities during the rally—zero was not an option—and the person who came the closest claimed the cash.
A friend suggested the grim game, Carol Landrum, a retired physician assistant, told the paper. The friend later died in a motorcycle crash.
No one is in charge of the overall event; it’s a loose affiliation of bars, campgrounds, and other organizations. While events are held in and around Sturgis, the city does not run it. “You can’t cancel what you don’t own,” Randy Peterson, owner of Sturgis.com, said last year in response to demands to call off the Rally.
Campgrounds, including the massive Buffalo Chip, pledged to remain open to host thousands of bikers who attend concerts and party all through the week. State and local officials, including Gov. Noem, said they had no intention of trying to prevent the event from going forward.
Noem has also rejected claims the 2020 Rally was a superspreader event.
The IZA Institute of Labor Economics, a Bonn, Germany, based private research institute, famously suggested it led to a spike of cases across the nation and imposed $12.2 billion in heath-care costs. “This report isn’t science; it’s fiction,” Noem said. “Under the guise of academic research, this report is nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis.”
Another report by economists in California connected the event to 250,000 cases. Noem slammed that report, too, as composed of “made up numbers.”
Her’s is a popular take in Sturgis, the seat of Meade County, which voted 72 percent for Trump in 2020 and overwhelmingly supported Noem in four runs for Congress and in her 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
But as the AP reported, experts linked 649 virus cases across the country to the 2020 rally, including the death of a Minnesota man in his 60s who had pre-existing conditions. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found the rally “had many characteristics of a superspreading event.”
South Dakota is taking a huge gamble with what could prove to be a devastating sequel.