Was the 2021 Sturgis Rally a Delta COVID Super-Spreader Event?

by Gabrielle DeSantis

Slowly, in-person events like the Chicago Auto Show are starting to make a return. And not just car shows, but motorcycle ones, too. However, just because the events are back doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. That’s what made the news that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally would continue for 2021 rather worrying. But now that the dust has settled, were the super-spreader fears realized?

The 2021 Sturgis Rally saw even more COVID-19 infections than last year’s super-spreader rally, Forbes says

Riders attend the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August 2021 | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last year, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally event organizers counted 460,000 vehicles attending the 10-day event. And in the weeks that followed, one study claimed that 250,000 coronavirus cases could be traced back to the South Dakota bike rally.

Admittedly, the results of a smaller-scope, Minnesota-focused CDC study suggest that 250,000-case estimate was rather high, RevZilla muses. Nevertheless, the CDC ultimately linked 649 COVID-19 cases to the 2020 Sturgis Rally, Forbes reports. Still, that was last year. What about 2021?

In short, things are even worse. Between August 4th and September 1st, a New York Times-run tracker recorded a 685% increase in South Dakota’s coronavirus cases, Forbes says. In comparison, last year saw a 246% case increase in the same timeframe. Also, the 2021 Sturgis Rally saw 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations by August 31st, while the 2020 event ‘only’ had 85 patients.

As of this writing, the 2021 Sturgis Rally hasn’t officially been declared a super-spreader event. But to quote the Associated Press, “the aftermath of this year’s rally looks eerily similar to last year.”

Why did the 2021 Sturgis Rally lead to so many COVID-19 cases?

To be fair, more people attended the 2021 Sturgis Rally than the 2020 one. South Dakota estimated that roughly 365,000 people went to Sturgis last year, while this year drew in about 700,000 individuals, Forbes reports. But even so, proportionally, there were still more cases and hospitalizations in 2021 than in 2020. So, what happened?

Basically, the delta variant. It’s even more contagious than the ‘regular’ COVID-19 strain, especially amongst the unvaccinated. Indeed, unvaccinated individuals were responsible for 97% of South Dakota’s cases following the Sturgis Rally, Forbes says. They were also responsible for 93% of hospitalizations and accounted for 95% of the deaths. Plus, only 49% of South Dakota residents are vaccinated.

In addition, while Sturgis officials’ tried to improve viral security, not all attendees took those efforts seriously. Organizers offered free coronavirus tests, masks, and hand sanitizer; plus, attendees could freely carry alcoholic beverages outside. That last measure was supposed to limit the number of people indoors, where most transmissions took place in 2020, NBC explains. But while officials supposedly enforced mask-wearing and social distancing, not everyone abided by those rules, AP points out. Based on interviews The Washington Post conducted, it seems that not every Sturgis Rally rider takes the coronavirus seriously.

What does this mean about large-scale motoring events going forward?

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That being said, the 2021 Sturgis Rally can help guide future car and motorcycle events, TWP muses.

For one, the vast majority of cases and hospitalizations involved unvaccinated individuals. Don’t want to catch COVID-19, or at least, not die from it? The data says to get the shot. Especially if you live with individuals who can’t get vaccinated.

Secondly, TWP suggests that transmission most commonly occurs between nearby unmasked individuals indoors. The results of that Minnesota-focused CDC study support this, NBC says. Wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and staying in well-ventilated areas—or, even better, outdoors—cuts down on transmission. That’s why the International Motorcycle Show went outdoors for 2021, for example.

Nevertheless, what’s happening right now post-Sturgis Rally also highlights another important lesson. If you don’t feel comfortable going to an event, motoring or otherwise, don’t go. No number of custom motorcycles or supercars is worth your or your loved ones’ health and safety. You don’t have to ride fast—just ride safe.

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