Harleys everywhere, masks nowhere: Sturgis draws thousands

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STURGIS, S.D. — Thousands of bikers poured into the small South Dakota city of Sturgis on Friday as the 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally rumbled to life.

The rally could become one of the largest public gatherings since the coronavirus pandemic began, with organizers expecting 250,000 people from all over the country to make their way through Sturgis during the 10-day event. That would be roughly half the number of previous years, but local residents — and a few bikers — worry that the crowds could spread the virus.

Many who rode their bikes into Sturgis on Friday expressed defiance at the rules and restrictions that have marked life in many locales during the pandemic. People rode from across the country to a state that offered a reprieve from coronavirus restrictions, as South Dakota has no special limits on indoor crowds, no mask mandates and a governor who welcomes visitors and the money they bring.

Bikers rumbled past hundreds of tents filled with motorcycle gear, T-shirts and food. Harley Davidson motorcycles were everywhere but masks were almost nowhere to be seen.

For Stephen Sample, who rode his Harley from Arizona, the event was a break from the routine of the last several months, when he’s been mostly homebound or wearing a mask when he went to work as a surveyor.

“I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be cooped up all my life either,” he said.

Still, Sample, who is 66, said he was trying to avoid indoor bars and venues, where he felt the risk of infection was greater. He said he ate breakfast at an indoor diner on the opening day of the event.

Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has taken a largely hands-off approach to the pandemic, avoiding a mask mandate and preaching personal responsibility.

Noem supported the Sturgis rally, pointing out that no virus outbreak was documented from the several thousand people who turned out to see President Donald Trump and fireworks at Mount Rushmore last month.

Daily virus cases have been trending upward in South Dakota, but the seven-day average is still only around 84, with fewer than two deaths per day.

Sturgis is a community of about 7,000 that’s roughly 25 miles northwest of Rapid City.

Marsha Schmid, who owns the Side Hack Saloon in Sturgis, was trying to keep her bar and restaurant from becoming a virus hot spot by spacing out indoor tables and offering plenty of hand sanitizer. She also scaled back the number of bands hired for the rally, hoping the crowds would stay thin. —AP stories contributed to this report.

but still spend the cash that keeps her business viable for the rest of the year.

She pointed out that many of her employees depend on the rally and the tips they can make.

The city plans to mass test residents to try to detect and halt outbreaks, but the area’s largest hospital system is already dealing with the influx of tourists and bikers who inevitably need non-COVID-19 hospital care during this time.

—AP stories contributed to this report.

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