What social distancing? 250,000 bikers begin descending on South Dakota for 10-day festival

The mayor of a small town in South Dakota says he is crossing his fingers that people behave responsibly, as up to 250,000 descend on his town of 7,000 for an annual motorbike rally.

Mark Carstensen, mayor of Sturgis, South Dakota, said he was determined to encourage ‘personal responsibility’.

He said his team had set up sanitation stations and given out masks – although face coverings were not required.

‘We cannot stop people from coming,’ he told CNN on Thursday, ahead of the annual event which has run for 80 years. 

Health officials are still warning against even small gatherings, and states with relatively low spread – such as South Dakota – are ordering visitors from hot spots to self-quarantine. 

No restrictions are in place for the start of the 10-day jamboree, however. 

Sturgis, South Dakota, is set to welcome 250,000 people this weekend for a motorbike rally

Sturgis, South Dakota, is set to welcome 250,000 people this weekend for a motorbike rally

Sturgis, South Dakota, is set to welcome 250,000 people this weekend for a motorbike rally

Motorcyclists ride on Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in South Dakota, on Saturday

Motorcyclists ride on Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in South Dakota, on Saturday

Motorcyclists ride on Main Street during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in South Dakota, on Saturday

The small town of Sturgis draws huge crowds every year for the annual motorbike festival and rally

The small town of Sturgis draws huge crowds every year for the annual motorbike festival and rally

The small town of Sturgis draws huge crowds every year for the annual motorbike festival and rally

Motorbike riders are pictured flocking to Sturgis, South Dakota, on Saturday for a rally

Motorbike riders are pictured flocking to Sturgis, South Dakota, on Saturday for a rally

Motorbike riders are pictured flocking to Sturgis, South Dakota, on Saturday for a rally

The annual event, now in its 80th year, draws 250,000 people to the town of Sturgis

The annual event, now in its 80th year, draws 250,000 people to the town of Sturgis

The annual event, now in its 80th year, draws 250,000 people to the town of Sturgis

The motorcyclist event is estimated to bring in $1.3 million to the annual economy

The motorcyclist event is estimated to bring in $1.3 million to the annual economy

The motorcyclist event is estimated to bring in $1.3 million to the annual economy

An estimated 250,000 people gather in South Dakota before heading out to explore the region

An estimated 250,000 people gather in South Dakota before heading out to explore the region

An estimated 250,000 people gather in South Dakota before heading out to explore the region

Worried residents say officials should have canceled the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Kristi Noem, the Republican governor, resisted stay-at-home orders and mask rules, and last month welcomed another mass event, President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July weekend speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore. 

A city survey found that more than 60 per cent of Sturgis residents wanted the event postponed, the Associated Press reported.

‘This is a huge, foolish mistake to make to host the rally this year,’ said Linda Chaplin, a Sturgis resident, in a message to city counselors earlier this summer. 

‘The government of Sturgis needs to care most for its citizens.’

‘My grandma is absolutely terrified because she has diabetes and is in her 80s and has lupus,’ another resident told CNN. 

‘If she gets it, it’s a death sentence.’

The event, in South Dakota’s Black Hills, is hugely important to the local economy, bringing in $1.3 million in city and state tax revenue last year, according to the Argus Leader. 

A mayor’s letter overviewing Sturgis describes how the city ‘comes alive’ with half a million visitors during a typical August rally, suddenly transformed into ‘the largest community in the state’ with concerts and races.

On June 15, city council members voted 8 to 1 to continue with the motorbike rally – albeit without the usual seating in a plaza.

Speaking Thursday to CNN, Carstensen said that keeping the rally has been ‘a difficult decision.’

He noted that the city will be expanding a program to deliver supplies to the homes of those worried about the virus. 

But there are no quarantine recommendations for bikers from hot spot states, the mayor said, and leaders are just ‘hoping people make the right choices.’ 

Visitors have already been flocking to the Black Hills amid the pandemic, he said. 

‘We hope people come,’ Noem said of the motorcycle rally. 

‘Our economy benefits when people come and visit us.’ 

A man prepares to set off on his motorbike in South Dakota on Saturday

A man prepares to set off on his motorbike in South Dakota on Saturday

A man prepares to set off on his motorbike in South Dakota on Saturday

A woman readies to ride her Harley Davidson in Sturgis, South Dakota, on Saturday

A woman readies to ride her Harley Davidson in Sturgis, South Dakota, on Saturday

A woman readies to ride her Harley Davidson in Sturgis, South Dakota, on Saturday

A dog rides on a motorcycle through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, on Saturday

A dog rides on a motorcycle through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, on Saturday

A dog rides on a motorcycle through downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, on Saturday 

A motorbike rider is pictured on Main Street, Sturgis, on Saturday ahead of the rally

A motorbike rider is pictured on Main Street, Sturgis, on Saturday ahead of the rally

A motorbike rider is pictured on Main Street, Sturgis, on Saturday ahead of the rally

Trump supporters proudly displayed their allegiance at the rally in South Dakota on Saturday

Trump supporters proudly displayed their allegiance at the rally in South Dakota on Saturday

Trump supporters proudly displayed their allegiance at the rally in South Dakota on Saturday

Up to 250,000 people are expected at the South Dakota rally, pictured on Saturday

Up to 250,000 people are expected at the South Dakota rally, pictured on Saturday

Up to 250,000 people are expected at the South Dakota rally, pictured on Saturday

Bikers from across the United States have descended on South Dakota for the annual rally

Bikers from across the United States have descended on South Dakota for the annual rally

Bikers from across the United States have descended on South Dakota for the annual rally

Up to 250,000 people are expected in South Dakota for the annual jamboree in Sturgis

Up to 250,000 people are expected in South Dakota for the annual jamboree in Sturgis

Up to 250,000 people are expected in South Dakota for the annual jamboree in Sturgis

Noem denounced ‘herd mentality’ and said coronavirus restrictions were not right for her rural state.

‘South Dakota is not New York City,’ she said. 

A South Dakota pork-processing plant soon became one of the country’s biggest coronavirus clusters in the spring – but cases eventually dipped and the sparsely populated state did not shatter daily records this summer like many Southern and Western states.

Average new daily cases reported in South Dakota have risen in recent weeks but remain under 100, and the state records an average of one or two covid-19 deaths a day. 

The state health department on Saturday reported 106 new cases.

There have been 9,300 cases and 146 deaths in the state, which has a population of 885,000 people. 

Benjamin Aaker, the president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, told CNN on Thursday that he is worried – but insisted the rally can be held safely if people follow recommendations such as social distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks. 

‘It’s already here,’ he said of the coronavirus. 

‘But is it going to get worse with an event such as this? 

‘If we don’t take those proper precautions, it will.’

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