South Dakota Reported 68 Percent Rise in COVID Cases Before Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Began

South Dakota reported a 68 percent rise in COVID-19 cases, largely in part due to the Delta variant, days before the state's annual 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began on Friday, the Associated Press reported.

Bikers from around the country and abroad flock to the city of Sturgis each year for the 10-day event as this year's is expected by organizers to attract at least 700,000 rallygoers. The virus did not impact the event holding its 80th anniversary last year although hundreds of attendees caught COVID-19. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) team of researchers said the 2020 rally, where T-Shirts were sold saying "Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis," resulted in a "superspreader event."

Pam Williamson, an event attendee from Kansas, said "it's just nice to see everybody out and about, being able to just be friends with everybody."

"We're out in the wide open," said Williamson, who was at the 80th rally last year. "If you want to wear a mask, that's your business. If you don't, that's your business."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
South Dakota reported a 68 percent rise in COVID-19 cases days before the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began Friday. In this photo, people walk along Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, on August 8, 2020. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The Black Hills of South Dakota roared with motorcycles and crowds Friday as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally started amid a rise in COVID-19 cases in the state.

On Thursday, the eve of the official opening, downtown Sturgis was clogged with Harleys, rallygoers packed shoulder-to-shoulder at bars and rock shows, and masks were nowhere in sight.

The rally is a rendezvous for bikers, who connect over their love for motorcycles. For some, it's a once-in-a-lifetime goal to make it to Sturgis; others faithfully make the pilgrimage year after year.

Public health experts—and some locals—worry the rally will again play host to coronavirus infections. Only about 46 percent of adults who live in the county that hosts Sturgis are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. CDC, compared with 60.6 percent nationwide. Virus infections are on the rise in South Dakota after a steady decline through the spring and early summer.

Last year's rally transformed Sturgis, usually a quiet community of under 7,000 residents, into a travel hub comparable to a major U.S. city. One analysis of anonymous cellphone data found that well over half of counties in the country were visited by someone who attended Sturgis.

This year, the rally is expected to be even bigger. The city was holding an opening ceremony Friday for the 81st iteration of the event—something it skipped last year in an attempt to tamp down the crowds.

The biggest step city officials took this year to mitigate the risk of infections was allowing rallygoers to drink on public property; the idea is to spread the crowds into the open air. Bars and food stalls that stretch for blocks also offer open-air seating.

If last year's rally was marked by defiance of coronavirus precautions, this year the pandemic appeared to hardly be an afterthought amid a crowd that embraces the risks and lifestyle of the open road.

"A lot of that, I don't worry too much about," said J.J. Vilella, who said he has not received a COVID-19 vaccine. "If it happens, it happens."

The rally is known as a place where people let loose, strolling the streets in minimal attire and body painting. On Thursday, one woman walked through downtown with a goat on a leash. A man sat on a bench with a rifle as passersby smiled and nodded.

Health experts say big gatherings provide fertile ground to start a wave of infections, but rallygoers said they came to escape the worries and restrictions of their lives back home.

"I'm going to live free," said Mike Nowitzke, who made his first trek to the rally from Illinois to celebrate his 50th birthday.

Motorcyclist in Sturgis, South Dakota
Only 46 percent of adults living in the county where Sturgis is located have received a COVID vaccine, prompting concern of disease spreading. Above, motorcyclists cruise through downtown Sturgis on Aug. 5, 2021. Stephen Groves/AP Photo