If you've heard of Sturgis, South Dakota, it's probably because of its annual motorcycle rally. In 2020, Sturgis made headlines for hosting the famous affair while much of America was shut down. Today, we head to Sturgis off-season, to find out if the Motorcycle Rally was really the deadly event some made it out to be.
Ernie Miller: Well, I was born in Eastern part of the state, but we moved out here and I just a little feller.
Ernie Miller is a Sturgis town legend, much like the historic rally that started as an inauspicious affair back in 1936.
Sharyl: Did you ever go and watch that when you were a kid?
Miller: Well, yeah, I think dad brought us in from the farm one year and we watched a motorcycle. It was dirt, and boy, they'd go around the curves, the dirt would just fly. That used to be the fastest half-mile dirt track in United States. It used to be. Can you imagine that?
History hangs on the walls in downtown Sturgis at the Loud American Roadhouse, owned by Dean Kinney.
Dean Kinney: This is Pappy Hoel, widely credited for started the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. He had an Indian dealership here back in the 1930's.
Sharyl: For a business like this, bar and restaurant, can you quantify or give any examples of how much business you do during the rally when it's as big as like we've talked about versus what you do the rest of the year?
Dean Kinney: Yeah, I can. We do about a third of our business that we do in this bar and restaurant in about 16 days.
Sharyl: Can you mark a year or a time when the rally went from being something that was not so big to just the game-changer that it is today?
Kinney: Absolutely. It was 1990. For the 50th anniversary there was some expectation it would be larger, but we were totally unprepared for it to be what it was, which was around 500,000. So we went up six, eight times, its normal size on one year and then stayed that big. So, it became huge and never went back.
But of all the Sturgis rallies, there’s never been one quite like last year’s. 460,000 bikers descended upon the Black Hills of South Dakota at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, making it one of the year’s most criticized events.
Sharyl: Was there consideration given, were people talking about ‘Should we try to cancel it?’
Daniel Ainslie: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. For about two and a half months, we held a wide variety of town hall discussions. We also held telephone conferences with state health officials, with our local health officials here.
Daniel Ainslie is the Sturgis city manager. He says they went forward with the rally for practical reasons.
Ainslie: Our surveys during the rally showed that over 70% of the people were going to come here, whether or not we officially hosted the rally. So, for a city of 7,000 people to host hundreds of thousands of people, there have to be preparations.
Some quickly labeled the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally a “Super Spreading” event. One study claimed the event was responsible for more than 266,000 Covid-19 cases, “19 percent” or nearly one in five of every one reported in America at the time.
Ainslie: It became pretty obvious that it was a narrative throughout the entire nation, especially the news media that wanted to pin it on these people that were being utterly irresponsible, and they were denying the virus and everything else. I don’t think that anyone is denying that there was a virus here.
Ainslie says rampant speculation was fueled by inaccurate reporting.
Sharyl: Someone called you and said they were counted as a coronavirus case from Sturgis, but they didn't even attend?
Ainslie: Yeah. We had one individual that stated that they were just driving to Washington state, and they were driving along I-90, which of course runs through our community. And so, then they were counted as one of the Sturgis recipients, even though they didn't even stop in Sturgis, they just stopped a couple of hundred miles to the East and a couple of hundred miles to the West. But according to their state health official, apparently they were a Sturgis victim of the coronavirus.
Sharyl: Did you say people were showing video though on the news, sometimes, of past years?
Ainslie: Absolutely. Which to us was really disappointing, because we have several live feed cameras, and we gave every media outlet permission so that they could use that, so that they could show current images. Because the vast majority of the time on our streets, there would be 40 or 50 people on a block. But instead they were showing images from previous rallies, and a lot of times it was from the 75th rally, which was massive, and it would show our streets lined with thousands and thousands of people. I mean it was images that were over five years old. And people acted differently in 2015 than what they did in 2020. Once a bar or restaurant started to even feel full, people weren't going in. People spent most of the time outdoors, and they were out riding the hundreds and thousands of miles of amazing highways that we have, winding through canyons and the mountains.
Ainslie said the town was told models predicted Sturgis hospitals would be overwhelmed and up to 5% of people in town would die- but that never came to pass. Now, months after the August rally, it’s widely acknowledged that there’s no way to know for sure if anybody was infected at Sturgis, let alone who and how many.
Ainslie: I think at the peak during the rally, and even after the rally, about 5% of the beds were used for Covid.
Based on statistics alone, scientific estimates indicate there should have been several hundred Covid deaths among the 460,000 Sturgis bikers even if they hadn’t gone to the rally. In the end, the media linked anywhere from one to about five fatalities to Sturgis and none, says Ainslie, was scientifically traced.
Ainslie: The hard data showed that there were about 260 cases that came from here. Now, the reality was there were probably some additional cases beyond those 260 that were immediately traced here, but to try to state that there were a quarter million, that's just ridiculous, and it was fanciful, and it was just pushing their narrative.
In the end, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally officially survived coronavirus in 2020 and so did Ernie Miller
Miller: And I am still alive.
who recently celebrated his 97th birthday. While those stats may not have drawn the same level of publicity the town is far too busy getting ready for this year’s rally to spend much time worrying about that.
Miller: Well, it's just lots of people. Yeah, people come from all over the surrounding area just to come in to watch, to see what's going on. It's a vacation for them.
Sharyl (on-camera): By the way, the alarming study that claimed Sturgis caused more than a quarter of a million Covid cases, a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health review called some of the analysis “weak” and said the “results should be interpreted cautiously.”