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Most bikers brush aside virus worries, jam South Dakota town for annual rally

Health officials are still warning against even small gatherings, and states with relatively low spread of the coronavirus are ordering visitors from hot spots to self-quarantine. 

That did not stop hordes of bikers streaming into Sturgis, S.D., on Friday and Saturday at one of the world's biggest annual motorcycle rallies - the first of 250,000 people from across the country expected to descend on South Dakota's rural Black Hills. They rumbled through the streets and crowded the sidewalks, often without masks, for the start of a 10-day extravaganza so deeply rooted that Sturgis calls itself the City of Riders.

WCVB reported that vendors at hundreds of tents sold motorcycle gear, food and T-shirts - one of which said, "Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis."

"I don't want to die, but I don't want to be cooped up all my life either," 66-year-old Stephen Sample told The Associated Press, explaining that he'd driven his Harley up from Arizona. He worries about getting the coronavirus, he said, and was trying to steer clear of bars but ate breakfast that morning inside a diner.

Many bikers resemble Sample: They are from the older population most vulnerable to the disease coronavirus, hail from the summer's major viral hot spots and have heard the warnings, but decided the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is worth the risk.

"This is a major experiment," Sample told the AP. "It could be a major mistake."

Although this year's rally was expected to draw half the number of attendees as prior years, motorcyclist Kevin Lunsmann, 63, told the AP that the only difference he noticed from past events was "a few people wearing masks." People were still filling bars and nightclubs, he said."Everybody's still partying hardy," Lunsmann told the AP.

As the massive rally approached this past week, the mayor of Sturgis said there was not much to do but encourage "personal responsibility," set up sanitation stations and give out masks, though they are not required.

"We cannot stop people from coming," Mayor Mark Carstensen said Thursday on CNN.

Worried residents, however, say officials should have delayed or canceled what could go down as one of the biggest pandemic-era gatherings in the country, in a state where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem resisted stay-home orders and mask rules - and last month welcomed another mass event, President Donald Trump's Fourth of July weekend speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore.

"We have to be here after they leave, and we're not sure what they're leaving," said a resident of Hill City, another Black Hills destination flooded by bikers, who requested anonymity because she said she feared backlash in the small community.

The decades-long local resident had prepared to hunker down inside, stocking up on groceries before the event, she told The Washington Post. The 65-year-old has family she fears could be particularly vulnerable to a viral infusion. But on Friday, she drove a couple of blocks, put her mask on and then walked out to Hill City's main drag just to survey the crowds.

"No masks, no social distancing," she said. "I just wish other people would respect the locals a little bit more."

A city survey found that more than 60% of Sturgis residents wanted the event postponed, the AP reported.

"This is a huge, foolish mistake to make to host the rally this year," Sturgis resident Linda Chaplin warned city officials earlier this summer, as a debate raged, according to the AP. "The government of Sturgis needs to care most for its citizens."

But the spectacle, centered in Sturgis and fanning out in surrounding towns, is hugely important to the local economy, bringing in $1.3 million in city and state tax revenue last year, according to the Argus Leader. A mayor's letter overviewing Sturgis describes how the city "comes alive" with a half-million visitors during a typical August rally, suddenly transformed into "the largest community in the state" with concerts and races.

On June 15, city council members voted 8 to 1 to forge ahead with the 80-year tradition, local news outlet NewsCenter 1 reported, albeit without the usual seating in a plaza.

Speaking to CNN, Carstensen said keeping the rally has been "a difficult decision."

He noted that the city will be expanding a program to deliver supplies to the homes of those worried about the virus. But there are no quarantine recommendations for bikers from hot-spot states, the mayor said, and leaders are just "hoping people make the right choices." Visitors already have been flocking to the Black Hills during the pandemic, he said.

Backing up local leaders' decision is the governor, who has been disdainful of coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic. Noem said this past week on Fox News that her state has successfully held other large gatherings, including Trump's event at Mount Rushmore.

"We hope people come," Noem said of the motorcycle rally. "Our economy benefits when people come and visit us."

As governor after governor - Democrat and Republican - turned to stay-home orders earlier this year, Noem denounced "herd mentality" and said such a move was not right for her rural state: "South Dakota is not New York City," she said.

A South Dakota pork-processing plant soon became one of the country's biggest coronavirus clusters in the spring, but cases eventually dipped and the sparsely populated state did not shatter daily records this summer like many Southern and Western states.

Average new daily cases reported in South Dakota have risen in recent weeks but remain under 100, and the state records an average of one or two deaths a day of COVID-19.

The concern: What happens when tourists pour in from around a country where the virus is still spreading out of control?

Benjamin Aaker, the president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, told CNN on Thursday that he's worried, but he insisted that the rally can be held safely if people follow recommendations such as social distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks.

Aaker stopped short of calling for those precautions to be mandated, though.

"We're the physicians to the state of South Dakota," he said of his organization, "much like the physician is to the person that comes in to see him or her, and we make recommendations."

"It's already here," he said of the coronavirus, "but is it going to get worse with an event such as this? ... If we don't take those proper precautions, it will."

 

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