As an avid motorcycle rider with a preference for Harley-Davidson machines, I had friends who rode to South Dakota last month for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, considered the largest public gathering of partying people without masks during the current COVID-19 pandemic that has brought much of life to its knees.
Health officials predicted that the gathering of 460,000 plus would “represent a situation where many of the ‘worst case scenarios’ for superspreading occurred simultaneously.”
A report this week from San Diego State University’s Center for Health Economic & Policy Studies says it was that bad, showing a link to at least 266,000 cases in South Dakota and other locations where participants brought back the disease to their hometowns. Others disagree or fault the way the study was conducted.
The San Diego State study said so many people, few wearing masks or engaging in any attempts to “social distance,” resulted in “substantial” consequences.
By analyzing the parts of the country that had the highest number of Sturgis attendees and changes in coronavirus trends after its conclusion, they estimated 266,796 cases could be linked to the rally. That’s about 19 percent of the number reported nationally between Aug. 2 and Sept. 2, and significantly higher than the number state health officials have linked through contact tracing. Based on a covid-19 case statistically costing about $46,000, the researchers said, that would mean the rally carried a public health price tag of $12.2 billion.
“This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend,” the paper said.
Officials in Sturgis, a 7,000-person city in the Black Hills, considered postponing the 80th edition of the rally. But the event encompasses hundreds of miles outside their jurisdiction, on state-licensed campgrounds and roads traveled by bikers. After determining that many would come regardless of what the city did, city councilors voted to allow the rally so they could prepare for their arrival. The South Dakota Department of Transportation put the event’s attendance at 462,182, down 7.5 percent from the previous year.
In its report, the university said:
“Finally, difference-in-differences (dose response) estimates show that following the Sturgis event, counties (from around the county) that contributed the highest inflows of rally attendees experienced a 7.0 to 12.5 percent increase in COVID-19 cases relative to counties that did not contribute inflows. Descriptive evidence suggests these effects may be muted in states with stricter mitigation policies (i.e., restrictions on bar/restaurant openings, mask-wearing mandates). We conclude that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally generated public health costs of approximately $12.2 billion.”
South Dakota state health official disagreed with the university’s findings, saying the research paper “had not been peer reviewed” and did not account for “a trend of already-increasing case counts in South Dakota or the possibility that school reopenings contributed to the rise.”
“What I have to say at this point is the results do not align with what we know for the impacts of the rally among attendees in the state of South Dakota,” state epidemiologist Josh Clayton said Tuesday.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem pooh-poohed mask mandates an stay-at-home orders imposed by other states and welcomed the bikers. The study, she told the Rapid City Journal, is “grossly misleading.”
“This report isn’t science; it’s fiction,” Noem said in a statement. “Under the guise of academic research, this report is nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis.”
South Dakota’s Department of Health says it has found 124 cases connected to the rally. A survey by The Washington Post says it has located 204 other rally-linked cases in 20 states. One death is reported, to date, of a rally participant.
Kerek Chapman, associate director for research at Virginia Commonwealth University’ Center on Society and Health, tells the Post he isn’t surprised by the numbers.
“It only takes a small number of people from places that have high infection rates to have a high likelihood that some of them are carrying the infection,” he said. “It’s kind of more of a mathematical certainty that you’re going to have possible asymptomatic cases in that event space and that it will spread over that 10-day period and that those people will head back to their own communities and continue spreading.”
Those who don’t understand the appeal of motorcycle riding say those of us who enjoy riding the roads on motorized two-wheelers “seek danger.”