Will the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Be Safer Than Last Year?

While the Chicago Auto Show returned for 2021 in altered form, not every motoring event has been so lucky. The ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic means some car shows, are still postponed or canceled. But some events are going forward anyway—not just car-related ones, but motorcycle-centric ones, too. And that includes the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

The 2020 Sturgis Bike Rally was a COVID-spreading event

2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendees at the Full Throttle Saloon
2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendees at the Full Throttle Saloon | Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place in South Dakota’s Black Hills and traditionally brings in large crowds of bike fans. That’s usually a good thing, at least from the perspective of the local economy. However, huge crowds of people—especially unmasked ones—are exactly the opposite of what’s necessary to keep COVID-19 in check.

Yet that’s exactly what happened at the 2020 Sturgis Bike Rally. Last year’s event saw a claimed 460,000 mostly unmasked visitors party and ride it up for several days. And the inevitable result was, according to one study, an estimated 250,000 related cases of COVID-19. The Sturgis Rally typically brings in an estimated $800 million to the area each year. But the previously-mentioned study estimates those COVID-19 cases cost the public $12 billion.

Admittedly, that study’s estimates might be inflated, RevZilla notes. The study is based on randomized cell-phone tracking data, for one, and doesn’t take into account external non-Sturgis infection pathways. In other words, a Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendee could have been non-infected, but someone in their household got infected from a newly-open school, for instance. Based on the study’s data-collecting logic, that ‘counts’ as a Sturgis-related infection.

Secondly, the study estimated that COVID-19 treatment costs $46,000 per person. That might be accurate for some, but significantly inaccurate for others. So, that ‘$12 billion’ figure should be taken with a grain of salt.

However, RevZilla also notes that the CDC ran a more limited study centered around Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendees from Minnesota. This study identified Rally-related infections using interviews and genetic testing. In the end, the CDC found 86 COVID-19 cases directly linked to 52 2020 Sturgis Bike Rally attendees. Of those 86 cases, four people were hospitalized, and one person died. Plus, RevZilla notes that shortly after the 2020 Rally, the Dakotas experienced “the two highest per capita COVID-19 death rates of all the 50 states.”

In short, the 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally did spread COVID-19.

The 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is still happening

2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendees and their motorcycles
2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally attendees | Scott Olson/Getty Images

The 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally organizers are trying to put a greater emphasis on public safety. The New York Times reports that the 2021 Rally will “offer free coronavirus tests, free masks, and hand sanitizer stations.” Furthermore, attendees can “carry alcoholic beverages outside without fear of being fined.” The idea here is to limit the number of people inside the bars.

While those are solid preventative measures, they might not be enough. The 2021 Tokyo Motor Show was canceled earlier this year due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. And organizers canceled the 2021 New York International Auto Show and the New York leg of the International Motorcycle Show because of the more virulent Delta variant. Ditto the Handbuilt Moto Show in Austin, Texas, RideApart notes. Also, Autoblog points out that the Sturgis Bike Rally organizers aren’t requiring proof of vaccination.

Yet the problem facing the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally isn’t just the virus. Much like at the Daytona Truck Meet, attendees’ attitudes are a continual issue. True, not every 2020 Sturgis Rally attendee went unmasked. However, “masks were mostly ditched” during the event, Autoblog says. Yes, the Rally has a certain ‘free-for-all’ reputation that’s part of its appeal. But those same attendees also have friends and family members back home, some of whom might not be vaccinated.

And that’s not the only issue at hand. Insider reports that several 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally vendors are selling paraphernalia with Nazi imagery and the Confederate flag. Those are symbols of racism, pure and simple.

Should you go?

The 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally started on August 6th and runs until the 15th. And riding through the Black Hills isn’t the only activity. The Rally features daily concerts, golf and poker tournaments, a 5K race, a tattoo contest, and a custom bike show. Plus, those rides benefit, among other things, local non-profits, homeless veterans, and cancer funds.

Ultimately, the decision to go or not go to the 2021 Sturgis Bike Rally is up to each individual. True, it’s a chance for riders to reconnect and, in some cases, provide assistance. And the extra preventative measures should, theoretically, improve attendees’ safety where COVID-19 is concerned. But if the safety- or culture-related aspects of the event leave you feeling uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t risk it. If you want to give to charity, there are other ways to raise money, RideApart points out. And it’s not like there aren’t other great places to ride in the US.

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