Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Cost $12.2 Billion in Public Health Due to Coronavirus Spread, Economists Conclude

The public health costs associated with treating coronavirus patients whose infections were linked to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally last month is estimated to be $12.2 billion, according to a new research paper analyzing the rally's health and economic impacts.

The 80th annual rally can be tied to more than 260,000 COVID-19 cases in the month since it took place in Sturgis, South Dakota, between August 7 and 16, researchers said. IZA Institute of Labor Economics, an international research institute, published its analysis of the rally's role as a "super-spreader" event this month.

IZA's researchers used an estimate on the average cost of treating a COVID-19 patient who survives the virus that the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) published last month. According to the SSRN paper, the average cost of treating an individual who does not die as a result of contracting the virus is $46,000. When that number is applied to the number of cases connected to the Sturgis rally, the resulting public health cost is more than $12.2 billion.

"This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend," the IZA researchers wrote.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2020
Motorcyclists ride through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 8, 2020. A research paper published in early September estimated that the public health costs associated with COVID-19 infections linked to the rally was about $12.2 billion. Michael Ciaglo/Getty

Though the researchers acknowledged that the true public health cost of the rally's impact was difficult to accurately pinpoint, "this calculation is nonetheless useful as it provides a ballpark estimate as to how large of an externality a single superspreading event can impose, and a sense of how valuable restrictions on mass gatherings can be in this context," they wrote.

The exact number of COVID-19 patients linked to the rally is also difficult to gauge, researchers said. To gather information for their analysis, researchers used cell phone data to track the number of people who traveled into Sturgis from out of town during the rally and the corresponding rises in COVID-19 cases in Sturgis and in the areas from which they traveled. According to the South Dakota Department of Transportation, an estimated 462,182 vehicles entered Sturgis over the rally's 10 days, which represented a 7.5 percent decrease in rally attendance from 2019.

Based on the cell phone location data collected, IZA researchers said just over 90 percent of the rally attendees traveled to Sturgis from out of state. Of those individuals, only about 18.6 percent were from states bordering South Dakota, with some attendees traveling from as far away as Washington state, researchers said.

Between August 2 and September 2, researchers said that the number of COVID-19 cases in Meade County—where the rally took place—increased from 6.3 to 6.9 per 1,000 residents, while the number of South Dakotans battling COVID-19 similarly increased from 3.6 to 3.9 per 1,000 residents. According to the South Dakota Department of Health, the state had 15,403 total cases as of Tuesday, September 8, with 346 of those reported in Meade County.

Though the number of cases in South Dakota is low compared to the hundreds of thousands reported in other states, the numbers are relatively high given South Dakota's population, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimated to be just under 885,000 in 2019. Regardless of local population size, researchers said the occurrence of events where attendees from different areas interact creates the kind of super-spreading opportunity that many state and federal health officials have tried to avoid since the pandemic arrived in the U.S.

"The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally represents a situation where many of the 'worst case scenarios' for superspreading occurred simultaneously," the paper said, noting the rally's high attendance rate, multi-day activities and interstate travel among attendees. With the exact details uncertain, researchers said that even half of their estimates would still represent a significant public health and economic impact.

Newsweek reached out to Sturgis city officials for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.