Thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts are having the time of their lives at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. But most are also enjoying it while unmasked and, potentially, unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Last year, when there was no vaccine, the rally still took place in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Only about 365,000 showed up, compared to this year’s projected 700,000. But that was still more than enough people to turn the rally into a coronavirus “super spreader event.”
And now, one year later, local healthcare workers feel divided about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. They’re weighing the risks of participants spreading COVID-19 or the more contagious Delta variant against a time-honored Sturgis tradition.
Rikki Plaggemeyer, a local 46-year-old emergency-room nurse manager, says the rally is just a part of life when you live in Sturgis.
“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 Motorcycle 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.”
Thirty-year-old registered nurse Jamie Lascelles agrees. But she and Plaggemeyer also understand the importance of wearing masks, which is something they said patients have struggled to cooperate with in the past.
“We do have some that don’t approve of [wearing masks]. And it’s unfortunate, but that’s just kind of where we live,” Lascelles said.
While the nurses generally seem ready to do what they can in the Sturgis ER, other local health officials feel differently.
Local Doctors Discuss Risks Of COVID-19 Spread At Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health in Rapid City, said the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally presents “a very high risk” of COVID transmission.
“My concern would be with the Delta variant, which as we know is highly transmissible,” Dr. Kurra said. “The fact is, it’s a mass gathering event. It puts people at risk. That’s the nature of this virus.”
Rapid City allergist and immunologist Dr. Halie Anderson actually grew up near Sturgis, in Spearfish, South Dakota. For her, the rally presents both pros and cons for the local citizens.
“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. I wish we were able to implement social distancing opportunities a little better. And I think it’s always concerning when you’re bringing a lot of people into an area.”
Local doctors aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the virus. South Dakota Department of Health spokesman Daniel Bucheli said they’d be watching it closely as well.
South Dakota Health Department Tracks COVID Cases
“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.”
Bucheli said the DOH has partnered with Monument Health to provide free COVID antigen tests, which will help them keep track of who’s carrying the virus. They’re also amping up the vaccine supply, though the vaccine traditionally doesn’t take full effect for two weeks. In the meantime, Bucheli recommends the bikers take several COVID precautions while at the rally.
“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 (handwashing, physical distancing, etc.) it increases protection.”