A yearning for the open road and open air of western South Dakota is understandable during this year of quarantine. But it doesn't take a medical degree to understand that allowing 250,000 or more motorcyclists to jam into the small city of Sturgis during an out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic is downright reckless.
And yet no one in a position of influence or authority stepped forward to make the responsible call — canceling the annual rally. In June, the Sturgis City Council voted to move forward with preparations for the event, which runs from Aug. 7-16. Nor did the state Health Department object, telling city officials it "would not provide a recommendation either for or against having the Rally," according to a city spokesman. Common sense was also absent in the private sector. The rally's website still lists over a dozen corporate sponsors that could have wielded clout on behalf of public health.
Progressive Insurance had been the most prominent backer on the rally's website. On Monday, an editorial writer asked the firm to explain how its continued support is responsible. The sidestep of an answer shouldn't reassure anyone planning to attend. A Progressive spokesman said that it takes public health seriously, that it will no longer have a physical presence at the rally and that it encourages rallygoers to follow social distancing guidelines. On Tuesday, the website no longer listed Progressive as a sponsor.
To sum things up, this was a failure of leadership on multiple levels. No one was willing to say no to an event that is an exuberant celebration of motorcycle culture but far from indispensable. It would have been painful to cancel, but organizers of other major events have done the right thing.
Yet this rally, expected to be one of the largest gatherings in the U.S. since COVID's arrival, will go on even as cases and deaths increase nationally and White House medical adviser Dr. Deborah Birx has warned that the outbreak has entered a dangerous new phase. Many traveling to and from the event will pass through Minnesota. It's understandable that the state's infectious disease specialists are among those sounding the alarm.
"People are going to get infected there and come back to their communities,'' said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, a University of Minnesota physician, said if indoor service is allowed at bars, the event will be an "utter disaster." COVID's spread will be "amplified by so many people in relatively stagnant air, there will be droplets and aerosols everywhere. If they act to move everything to outdoors, it will be better but still not ideal."
As of Tuesday, the promotional schedule included a major indoor event — a charity poker tournament at a local casino. The city of Sturgis has asked bars to limit occupancy to 50%, but it's a request, not an order. Multiple outdoor events, such concerts and the Lingerie Fighting Championships, are likely to attract large crowds at privately-owned venues.
While organizers are promoting social distancing and the city will provide "sanitation stations," the value of these efforts at infection control in this large a crowd is limited. "It's like putting a log across the Mississippi and calling it a dam," Osterholm said.
There are those, particularly on social media, who still scoff at the event's risks. Many scheduled events are indeed outdoors, something thought to reduce contagion, but the massive size of the rally, its party atmosphere and its nine-day run could undermine that protection. Many rallygoers will be older and at higher risk for severe COVID cases.
Responsible local, state and corporate leadership would have canceled the rally and come to the aid of businesses dependent on bikers' dollars. That this didn't happen speaks volumes about why COVID is throttling up, not back, in the U.S.