How the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally may have spread coronavirus across the Upper Midwest
Within weeks of the gathering, the Dakotas, along with Wyoming, Minnesota and Montana, were leading the nation in new coronavirus infections per capita. The surge was especially pronounced in North and South Dakota, where cases and hospitalization rates continued their juggernaut rise into October. Experts say they will never be able to determine how many of those cases originated at the 10-day rally, given the failure of state and local health officials to identify and monitor attendees returning home, or to trace chains of transmission after people got sick. Some, however, believe the nearly 500,000-person gathering played a role in the outbreak now consuming the Upper Midwest.
In many ways, Sturgis is an object lesson in the patchwork U.S. response to a virus that has proved remarkably adept at exploiting such gaps to become resurgent. While some states and localities banned even relatively small groups of people, others, like South Dakota, imposed no restrictions — in this case allowing the largest gathering of people in the United States and perhaps anywhere in the world amid the pandemic and creating huge vulnerabilities as tens of thousands of attendees traveled back home to every state in the nation.
Many went unmasked to an event public health officials pleaded with them to skip, putting themselves and others at risk, because they were skeptical about the risks, or felt the entreaties infringed on their personal liberties. Rallygoers jammed bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and concert venues; South Dakota officials later identified four such businesses as sites of potential exposure after learning that infected people had visited them.
Despite the concerns expressed by health experts ahead of the event, efforts to urge returnees to self-quarantine lacked enforcement clout and were largely unsuccessful, and the work by state and local officials to identify chains of transmission and stop them was inconsistent and uncoordinated.
Those efforts became further complicated when some suspected of having the virus refused to be tested, said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious-disease epidemiology at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Such challenges made it all but impossible to trace the infections attendees may have spread to others after they got home. Several infections tied to a wedding in Minnesota, for instance, “linked back to someone who had gone to Sturgis,” Ehresmann said. Those were not tallied with the Sturgis outbreak because “the web just gets too complicated,” she said.
The Aug. 7-16 gathering has drawn intense interest from scientists and health officials, and will likely be studied for years to come because of its singularity. It’s not just that Sturgis went on after the pandemic sidelined most everything else. It also drew people from across the country, all of them converging on one region, packing the small city’s Main Street and the bars and restaurants along it. And in contrast with participants in the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, many Sturgis attendees spent time clustered indoors at bars, restaurants and tattoo parlors, where experts say the virus is most likely to spread, especially among those without masks.