South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem returns to ride at Sturgis motorcycle rally during major COVID spike

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, an event that was deemed a superspreader event last year, returns despite a COVID surge

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published August 5, 2021 5:22PM (EDT)

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, is expected to attend the state's 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, an event that was deemed a superspreader event last year, despite the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases this year. 

The event is scheduled to bring around 700,000 people – a marked 200,000-person increase from the prior year. Last year's smaller charity ride "had many characteristics of a superspreading event," according to a report by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, which noted that the rally "generated public health costs of approximately $12.2 billion." The rally, they estimated, may have resulted in the infection of about 250,000 Americans nationwide. 

At the time, Noem dismissed the report, saying that it "isn't science; it's fiction." She added: "Under the guise of academic research, this report is nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis."

According to AP News, Noem – who has repeatedly flouted public health guidelines and even criticized governors who heeded them – is set to make an appearance at the event, which starts on Friday and is expected to generate $800 million in revenue, per the state's Department of Tourism.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, expressed significant concern that the event might trigger yet another wave of hospitalizations throughout the country.

"I understand how people want to move on from this pandemic — God knows I want to — but the reality is you can't ignore it," Osterholm told AP. "You can't just tell the virus you're done with it."

The state's current rate of infection is about half of what it was ahead of last year's Sturgis rally, with deaths also having plummeted substantially, AP noted. 

However, it's unclear precisely how many rally goers have been vaccinated, as the event will not require vaccination for admittance. According to The New York Times, about 46% of adults in Meade County (where the rally is held) are vaccinated – an approximate 14% deficit from the national average. The Center for New Data found via cell phone data that vaccination rates amongst rally-goers are disproportionately low compared to other countries in South Dakota last year, as AP noted. 

Motorcycle riders meanwhile have argued that the open-air environment would mitigate the potential spread of the virus. But a team of contact tracers last year found that 649 cases throughout the country, including one death, were linked to attendees of the event. 

The rally comes amid a resurgence of mass gatherings throughout the nation. This past weekend, Chicago organized its annual Lollapalooza music festival, which brought north of 350,000 people – albeit they had to be vaccinated for entry. In Wisconsin, about 500 Covid cases have been linked to the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks championship game last month, which brought over 100,000 viewers in one night.

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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Brief Charity Covid Governor Kristi Motorcycle Noem Ride South Dakota Surgis