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South Dakota Motorcycle Rally Goes On, Even During The Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Thousands of bikers and motorcycle enthusiasts are descending on South Dakota's Black Hills for the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. For many, it's a welcome break from pandemic restrictions. But, as you can guess, it's also raising public health concerns, as South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger reports.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Hundreds of rally-goers pop in and out of storefronts and bars and tattoo parlors on Main Street in the downtown. It's packed - really packed. Bikes cruise up and down the strip, and very few people are wearing masks. As I walk through the crowd in a mask, it's clearly taken as a political statement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: COVID? You must've caught the fear (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

STRUBINGER: Walking down a block from the main show, I'm going to see who I can talk to.

I duck into the Sturgis Tattoo Shop just off of Main Street, where Lenny Borg has come to give tattoos during the rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO MACHINE BUZZING)

STRUBINGER: He's wearing a mask to keep clientele safe and comfortable, but he's not asking them to wear one.

LENNY BORG: Help protect myself, and I think they have the right to choose what they want to do. And likewise, they should let me choose what I want to do.

STRUBINGER: Borg says rally-goers like him are drawn to Sturgis because of the long history of the event. He says they love motorcycles and America.

BORG: No matter all the [expletive] that's going on in it right now, you know, I think one of the allures is you can kind of not be ruled by the government and not - you know, feel a little more free out here.

STRUBINGER: South Dakota has been hands-off in its approach to the pandemic. It never shut things down. The state is one of the only in the country without mask requirements or restrictions on public gatherings and no standing 6 feet apart. Officials expect about 250,000 people to attend over the course of nine days, which is about half of a typical rally. The State Department of Health is not offering any coronavirus testing during the rally. The city will have 1,300 tests for residents who want one once it's over.

This isn't the first major event in South Dakota since the pandemic swept across the country. In July, 7,500 people, including President Trump, attended a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. Republican Governor Kristi Noem told Fox News it's a point of pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KRISTI NOEM: So we know we can have these events, give people information, let them protect their health but still enjoy their way of life and enjoy events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. We hope people come. Our economy benefits when people come and visit us.

MARY GRAHAM: To me, it's not worth taking the chances.

STRUBINGER: That's Mary Graham, a retired nurse practitioner who has lived in and around Sturgis for over 40 years.

GRAHAM: I just think it's really dangerous. If you open it up and have the rally, it kind of makes it seem like, oh, yeah, it's OK. Go ahead and come.

STRUBINGER: Graham is among 60% of Sturgis residents who said they wanted the rally postponed this year. Jon Schaff is a political science professor at Northern State University.

JON SCHAFF: Part of what the whole ethos of the rally is that American freedom of the open road, that you get on your motorcycle, and you ride - right? - and you feel free.

STRUBINGER: But Schaff says that conflicts with the need to respond to a public health emergency.

SCHAFF: Throughout U.S. history, there's been this resistance from some quarters to being told what to do.

STRUBINGER: For the next week, the rally and the coronavirus may seem like a local problem for Sturgis and the state of South Dakota. But the people here for the rally come from all corners of the country, and will soon be going back home. For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in Sturgis, S.D. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.