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COVID or no COVID, bikers flocking to massive Sturgis rally

Expect heaving crowding in the park during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally week. (National Park Service/Released)

Darreld Pearce has loaded his 2012 Harley Davidson Ultra Limited onto a trailer for the past three summers and road-tripped from Florida to meet up with fellow Air Force veterans at the gathering of hundreds of thousands of bikers in Sturgis, South Dakota.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the famed Sturgis event, which some epidemiologists fear could become a coronavirus super-spreader. Think crowded beaches and packed bars, just at an order of magnitude far larger.

All five of the friends Pearce planned to meet canceled because of the pandemic. Pearce did not. He’ll make the trip from Pensacola with his girlfriend early next week, shrugging off the risks.

“When I was in the Air Force, I specialized in chemical, biological warfare, so I’m familiar with viruses and masks,” Pearce said. “I’m not concerned.”

But, just to be safe, he’ll bring hand sanitizer and cloth masks, he said.

The risk is high for any event like the rally where people from different parts of the country congregate, cautioned Amesh Adalja, an infectious-diseases doctor at Johns Hopkins University.

“Hopefully some of that risk will be mitigated since the rally will be outdoors and we know that outdoor transmission is less likely than that indoors,” he said. “Hopefully there are certain precautions put in place, if not by the organizers then by the individuals that are going there.”

More than 400,000 bikers gathered in Sturgis last summer and while there may not be that many when the 10-day event begins this Aug. 7, there will be large numbers of bikers potentially bringing COVID-19 to the event or taking it home with them. And they’ll risk spreading it all along the way there and back.

The motorcycle rally has been controversial in South Dakota, where polls show the public doesn’t want the event this year, but politicians and businesses do. Gov. Kristi Noem boasts her state has the fewest coronavirus restrictions in the nation, and mocked the idea of social distancing when hosting President Donald Trump and his family over the Fourth of July weekend.

Pete Gold, who runs One-Eyed Jack’s Saloon in Sturgis, isn’t worried about a drop-off in customers.

“They’re already here,” he said, estimating he has twice as many as last year already.

As for Covid fears, Sturgis residents “have learned to wash their hands,” he said sarcastically, adding that only Democrats worry about the virus, and that it will disappear after the Nov. 3 election.

Trinity Conrad is relieved the rally is still on. She opens her Dungeon Bar only during the event and depends on the large revenue generated for the event and weeks surrounding it.

“We’ve tried staying open year-round, or even just in the summer, and the city of Sturgis doesn’t bring enough economy and tourism to the town to make it even remotely worthwhile,” she said.

The rally has stayed under the national radar so far, but will draw attention in days ahead, especially as developments this week in Major League Baseball have shown the ease with which the coronavirus can spread even when people are taking precautions.

The state saw an uptick in coronavirus after the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore, but until now has enjoyed an infection rate of under 1 percent. South Dakota also has just under 900,000 residents, so an influx of out-of-state visitors lends itself to the spread of the virus.

The Sturgis event draws its fair share of so-called outlaw bikers, groups like the Hell’s Angels and the Bandidos. But it also draws retired and soon-to-retired baby boomers, those with the money to buy a Harley Davidson or other luxury bikes and the time to take a trip. And these aging boomers happen to fall into the age group most at risk for COVID-19.

That weighed on Onnie Massey and members of his Space Coast Harley Owners Group in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

“We’re just not going as a chapter on account of this virus,” said Massey, who is himself staying home. “But we are going to have individual riders.”

Massey thinks that practicing social distancing will be a challenge.

“How are you going to stay away from a large crowd at Sturgis? In certain areas they’re shoulder to shoulder,” he said.

Rally organizers plan to have a strong live stream presence online to accommodate those who have chosen not to participate.

“It’s their choice and I totally understand it,” said director Jerry Cole.

But he challenges the idea that bikers won’t be able to socially distance at Sturgis. The rally is mostly held in the Black Hills mountains, “so there’s plenty of space to roam and plenty of space to stay away from others,” he said.

There’s another wrinkle for Florida bikers. They come from a state with higher reported numbers of coronavirus infection than China and other countries.

“We don’t want to go out there and get a bunch of hassle with Florida tags on our bikes,” Massey said.

For Texan Billy Fayo, a 50-year-old motorcycle aficionado who will travel to Sturgis from Fort Worth, COVID-19 fear is exactly why he’s going. He expects a little more elbow room and fewer inexperienced riders.

“Some people were saying there’s going to be a million to a million and a half that were going, and then COVID hit and people started backing out. So I thought, maybe I will go this year,” he said. “Honestly, the COVID thing for me was a deciding factor to go because I kept watching people leave.”

Matt Yore is attending Sturgis on his own. He’s director of the ManaSota Harley Owners Group in Sarasota, Florida, and only four members of his group are going to Sturgis, when in other years the number has been closer to 10.

“We have a lot of members who are elderly and they’re more susceptible to the virus,” Yore said. “They’re a little bit more cautious.”

He and members close to his age, 41, aren’t overly worried about coronavirus.

“We’re going to get it at one point in time so whenever it happens, it happens,” he said.

What makes Sturgis a different sort of event is this question: how do you conduct contact tracing for people who’ve attended? They’ll be coming from all corners of the nation, and will be using rest stops, gas station bathrooms, eating in restaurants and touring parks along the way to Sturgis and back.

“Any type of mass gathering will be difficult for contact tracers, and it’s going to be more difficult if the people you are trying to trace are mobile,” Adalja said.

Some experts think those at most risk will be smart and stay away.

“It’s definitely an event that is going to increase the number of positives and cases,” said Gen. James James, a retired Army doctor and one-star general, who thinks older Americans are now making smarter decisions about COVID-19. “We have to give more credit to the high-risk people for making intelligent decisions.”

Most of the crowd is likely to be younger to middle aged, he reasoned, and if infected are likely to survive the virus.

But they still run the risk of spreading it to others, acknowledged James, who now heads the Society for Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

“If they are infected … can and will they spread it as they go home? I think some of that will occur. I personally don’t think it is going to be as dramatic as people expect,” said James, calling himself an outlier.

The summer of coronavirus has affected the national rally in other ways. Several traditional participants say they are pulling out but not so much from the risk but from the economic damage the virus has already done.

“That [the virus] would be one of the factors but not the only one,” said Paul Sweeney, manager of performance-parts manufacturer ThunderMax, confirming his company was not going to attend.

Other brands and companies have also pulled out of the event, he said, partly because some of them are not doing well enough to be able to spare the personnel.

Some riders say they won’t go to Sturgis this year because the COVID-19 restrictions, limits on highways and the like, will just take away the fun of it.

“Do I really want to spend the money and go all the way out there for 50 percent or less of a possibility of an experience of the freedom of moving around and being able to do what I want to do?” asked Rick Sessa, president of The Enforcers Motorcycle Club, which began in South Florida. “That’s the problem.”


© 2020 Miami Herald