South Dakota Governor Dismisses Sturgis Motorcycle Rally COVID-19 Outbreak As 'Fiction'

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has dismissed a report suggesting the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was a "superspreading event" for COVID-19 that cost billions of dollars in health costs.

Researchers from the Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies at San Diego State University in California claimed event, which attracted nearly 500,000 visitors, may have resulted in 266,796 new coronavirus cases—nearly 20 percent of the 1.4 million new cases of COVID-19 recorded in the U.S. between August 2 and September 2.

The annual event, which ran from August 7 to August 17, did not enforce social distancing guidelines and the wearing of masks in the was were not mandatory. Photographs show large crowds spilling out into the streets from Sturgis' bars, with an outdoor concert by the band Smash Mouth also taking place at the rally.

The study described how the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally saw many of "worst-case scenarios" for superspreading occurring simultaneously.

These include the event taking place over several days, individuals packed closely together, a large out-of-town population traveling into the town to attend, and a "low compliance with recommended infection countermeasures such as the use of masks."

"The only large factors working to prevent the spread of infection was the outdoor venue, and low population density in the state of South Dakota," the paper adds.

The researchers arrived at the figures by analyzing anonymized cellphone data to track the smartphone pings from non-residents and movement of those before and after the event.

The study then linked those who attended and traveled back to their home states, and compared changes in coronavirus trends after the rally's conclusion.

"We're never going to be able to contact trace every single person from Sturgis," Andrew Friedson, one of four authors of the study, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

"So if we want a good-faith estimate using, at the moment, the accepted statistical techniques ... this is the best number we're going to get in my opinion."

The review has since been dismissed by Gov. Noem, who backed the event to go ahead amid the outbreak as it provides a major economic boost to the state

"This report isn't science. It's fiction," Noem tweeted.

"Under the guise of academic research, it's nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis

"Predictably, some in the media breathlessly report on this non-peer-reviewed model, built on incredibly faulty assumptions that do not reflect the actual facts and data.

Noem added: "At one point, academic modeling also told us that South Dakota would have 10,000 COVID patients in the hospital at our peak. Today, we have less than 70.

"I look forward to good journalists, credible academics, and honest citizens repudiating this nonsense."

Speaking to Newsweek about Noem's comments, Friedson said: "This is an analysis based on comparisons of actuals, not a model projection like the governor has suggested.

"We are in no way trying to make a judgment as to what was the 'right' choice, we are simply using common policy evaluation techniques to try to study what happened."

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
People walk along Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota on August 8, 2020. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has dismissed a report suggesting the rally was a “superspreading event” for COVID-19 Michael Ciaglo/Getty

The study calculated that the total public health costs as a result of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally were at least $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 states.

"While we note that this estimate captures the full costs of infections due to the Sturgis rally—and is an overestimate of the externality cost because this number includes COVID-19 infections to individuals who attended the rally (and may have internalized private health risks)—we nonetheless conclude that local and nationwide contagion from this event was substantial."

This graph, provided by Statista, shows the states with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases as of September 7.

States with most COVID-19 cases