Sturgis motorcycle rally ready to roll despite COVID-19 wave

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally rumbles into South Dakota on Friday, with the gathering expected to draw as many as 700,000 visitors. Yet even as some states and cities around the U.S. reverse course in reopening amid a fearsome spike in COVID-19 cases linked to the so-called Delta variant, local business owners around Sturgis are revved up for an annual tradition that has become a mammoth tourism event.

“I think it’s great we’re getting so many tourists. Seeing all the new faces and their wanting us to tell them about other local businesses to go to is super cool,” said Taylor Whittle, owner of Sweet Secrets Bakery, located in Rapid City, South Dakota, about 20 minutes away from Sturgis. 

In fact, Whittle is less concerned about the virus than she is her internet speed, which she said has slowed given the sheer volume of people using bandwidth as the 10-day motorcycle rally gets ready to roll. “We’re definitely noticing our internet is not working because of all the people in town.”

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The event, now in its 81st year, was attended by roughly 460,000 people in 2020. The influx generates around $800 million in sales for the local economy, according to South Dakota’s Department of Tourism. Sturgis has a population of roughly 7,000

After the 2020 rally, researchers associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a study that the rally “had many characteristics of a superspreading event” and had led to more than 260,000 coronavirus cases nationwide. 

Yet other disease experts disputed some of the findings. Although the event likely did lead to a rise in COVID-19 cases, evidence that it had caused such a large spike in infections was “relatively weak,” concluded researchers with Johns Hopkins University who reviewed the study.

Still, some South Dakota business owners who expect to cash in during the event are taking precautions.

“I am a little concerned about folks coming in from out of town. We wear masks and I don’t require it because there are some folks who flat out won’t do it. But it is encouraged,” Shelby Spratt, owner of The Good Witch Cake Shop on Main Street in Sturgis, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally To Be Held Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
Motorcycles and people crowd Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 7, 2020, in Sturgis, South Dakota.  Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

Business is hopping, she added. “A lot of people come here to get married, so I am busy with wedding cakes.”

Between July 25 and July 31, the number of reported COVID-19 cases in South Dakota rose 68% to 52 per day, according to the state’s health department. The rate of positive cases as of August 2 was nearly 8%. Nearly 1,800 people in the state have died from COVID-19.

COVID-19 is less of a concern at Hot Leathers, a motorcycle apparel store in Sturgis that sells commemorative motorcycle rally T-shirts.

“It’s huge. This is how we make most of our money,” said a store manager, who declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media. “I don’t think there is going to be any problem. It got blown way out of proportion last year.”