While live events throughout America are shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is set to go off at full throttle this week, including a full slate of live entertainment. While the original bill – featuring ZZ Top, REO Speedwagon, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Shinedown and more – almost universally dropped their participation in the event, organizers were able to find acts to replace them and have the show go on.
Headliners for the 80th anniversary of the Sturgis Rally include Molly Hatchet, The Guess Who, Smash Mouth, Night Ranger, Buckcherry. Drowning Pool, .38 Special, Quiet Riot, Reverend Horton Heat, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Colt Ford, and Andrew Dice Clay, among many others. Great White, who caught a great deal of negative attention for their participation in a show that had lax attitudes about social distancing requirements, are also on the bill. Performances open on August 7 and run through the 16.
Typically, the rally draws hundreds of thousands of attendees, enjoying a mix of camping, motorcycle rides, concerts, and other motorcycle-related activities. The 75th annual event was reported to have over 750,000 participants in attendance. Authorities are expecting a smaller crowd this year – estimating that some 250,000 will make their way to the Black Hills of South Dakota in spite of the pandemic.
Needless to say, the fact that such a large event will be going on is drawing controversy.
“This is a huge, foolish mistake to make to host the rally this year,” Sturgis resident Lynelle Chapman told city counselors at a June meeting. “The government of Sturgis needs to care most for its citizens.”
Local organizers believe that the ability to keep social distance with smaller crowds in the wide open spaces available at the rally will help prevent any outbreaks, pointing to the lack of spike associated with more than 7.500 attending a July 3 fireworks display at Mount Rushmore. Authorities cancelled city-sponsored events, and are encouraging adherence to guidelines for hygiene to keep the rally from becoming a super-spreader event.
“We’re going to recommend CDC guidelines to all the vendors,” noted city of Sturgis mayor Mark Carstensen in a video posted to social media in June. Further safety measures will include “multiple public hand-sanitizing stations throughout Main Street Sturgis” and “additional sanitizing of our Main Street, in addition to the cleaning that we always do each year.”
“We understand the importance of personal safety,” he added. “It’s not a binary situation. It’s not the economy vs. public safety. It’s a situation where those can work together.”
South Dakota has been largely spared any significant outbreak of COVID-19, with 9,020 recorded cases thus far and 135 deaths. It will likely take several weeks to determine whether or not the influx of thousands from across the country will change that, or if organizers are right about their ability to hold a safe festival. While crowd estimates are for about half of normal, at least one festival organizer thinks that crowds might be far larger than expected.
“It’s the biggest single event that’s going on in the United States that didn’t get canceled,” said Rod Woodruff, who operates the Buffalo Chip campground and concert venue where many activities and patrons will be taking place. “A lot of people think it’s going to be bigger than ever.”