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Health Experts Fear A Spread Of COVID As Motorcyclists Gather In South Dakota

Motorcycle enthusiasts attend the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Sunday in Sturgis, S.D. The rally is expected to draw up to 700,000 people during its 10-day run.
Motorcycle enthusiasts attend the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Sunday in Sturgis, S.D. The rally is expected to draw up to 700,000 people during its 10-day run.

The Budweiser Clydesdales, a man dressed as Captain America, women wearing nothing but body paint, and a motorcycle covered in antlers and taxidermy are just some of the sites to see at the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Sturgis, which has fewer than 7,000 residents, will temporarily become the state's biggest city as up to 700,000 bikers roll in for the 10-day event that began Friday in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

The rally has no vaccination, testing or masking requirements as people ride outdoors but also gather at tattoo parlors, bars, campsites and packed concerts.

Gov. Kristi Noem and Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen say the rally is safe but medical experts fear it will lead to a spike in cases due to the delta variant and low vaccination rates in the Black Hills.

The tattooed, leather-clad crowd cheered Friday as the opening day parade headed down Main Street. The drag is lined with hundreds of bikes and massive bars staffed by barely dressed servers and dancers.

Medical experts are concerned about the coronavirus spreading in the Black Hills and across the country as riders return home.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Medical experts are concerned about the coronavirus spreading in the Black Hills and across the country as riders return home.

Carstensen said there was no debate about hosting the rally since there's been few pandemic restrictions in South Dakota. He said it was too late to reconsider once the delta variant arrived.

"By the time it happened everything's already been planned, done, organized, ready to go, people are already here so there's not much we can do," he said.

Medical experts are concerned about the virus spreading in the Black Hills and across the country as riders return home.

"The Sturgis Rally unfortunately increases the risk for a spread because we know the delta variant is causing rises in say, Arkansas, Missouri and several other states," said Dr. Shankar Kurra, the vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health, which serves western South Dakota.

Researchers from the CDC found at least 649 COVID cases linked to last year's rally, which was held despite 60% of Sturgis residents saying they wanted it postponed.

The CDC reported that about 44% of people age 12 and older are fully vaccinated in Sturgis and the surrounding county as cases rise within South Dakota.

Lina Skipper is a tattoo artist from Colorado who's worked the rally for the past 10 years. Skipper is vaccinated but wears a mask while tattooing since her clients might not be vaccinated. She doesn't want to pass the delta variant to her high-risk relatives.
Arielle Zionts / SDPB
Lina Skipper is a tattoo artist from Colorado who's worked the rally for the past 10 years. Skipper is vaccinated but wears a mask while tattooing since her clients might not be vaccinated. She doesn't want to pass the delta variant to her high-risk relatives.

Lina Skipper blended into the Sturgis crowd with her rainbow hair and heart-shaped sunglasses as she took a smoke break outside a tattoo shop. She's vaccinated and wears a mask when tattooing clients.

"We're not requiring clients to wear their masks because unfortunately it's not like a state-mandate thing. It's hard to ask people to wear it because you're going to face a lot of resistance," Skipper said.

A group of Bikers for Christ gathered outside the community center. Member Jenny McKinney is a school bus driver attending the rally with her husband for the first time. She has not been vaccinated.

"A motorcycle can be more dangerous than COVID. Something's going to get you. You just need to know where you're going when you die," she said.

Shawn "Hatchet" and Jenny "Blondie" McKinney are members of Bikers for Christ in Indiana. Shawn, who is attending his third rally, wanted his wife to experience Sturgis for her first time. Neither has been vaccinated.
Arielle Zionts / SDPB
Shawn "Hatchet" and Jenny "Blondie" McKinney are members of Bikers for Christ in Indiana. Shawn, who is attending his third rally, wanted his wife to experience Sturgis for her first time. Neither has been vaccinated.

Shawna Garland also works with students. But the high school teacher is vaccinated and trying to avoid crowds.

"Well, my friend's coming up to see her relation and asked if I wanted to go and I said 'yeah I want to see what it's all about.' I just like to people watch and shop."

Eric Kass arrived to Sturgis on a ruby-red motorcycle he bought at last year's rally. The veteran and former corrections officer does not plan to get vaccinated.

"I just love seeing the bikes, the camaraderie of people trying to get along, the tattoos — I just got a full arm tattoo — just love the atmosphere," Kass said.

Last year, Sturgis conducted mass testing for asymptomatic people to help monitor the virus. This year it's delivering at-home tests for those who want it. Dr. Kurra said Monument will monitor cases through testing and the amount of people walking through its hospital doors.

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