The coronavirus might be able to stop professional sports teams from playing, schools from reopening, churches from worshiping, and strip joints from entertaining, but it can't stop a brigade of hog-riding pilgrims from making their way to Sturgis, South Dakota, for their annual rally.
About 250,000 motorcycle enthusiasts are expected to descend on the town of 7,000 people starting this weekend for the 10-day rally. Though the expected crowd is about half the size of the rally's usual draw, there is still going to be a lot of out-of-town traffic — and that's making some residents nervous.
CNN asked Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen if holding the rally was really a good idea.
Carstensen noted that the whole thing has been a difficult decision and process since March, adding, "We cannot stop people from coming."
South Dakota has been one of the rare states that has bucked the trend of shutting everything down in response to COVID-19, and Gov. Kristi Noem, who famously held an Independence Day weekend event at Mount Rushmore with President Donald Trump, has become a hero to many on the right who say governmental reactions to the pandemic have trampled on the freedoms of Americans.
Mayor Carstensen acknowledged as much, telling CNN, "South Dakota has been a free state through this whole process, and we've had a tremendous amount of visitors already."
Sturgis officials understood the reality of the situation, and though 60% of Sturgis residents said they would prefer the city not hold the motorcycle event this year, the city council voted 8 to 1 to still sanction the rally, the Washington Post said.
City Manager Daniel Ainslie told CNN that the city council knew thousands of people would be making the trek whether the rally officially happened or not, so the city needed to prepare, rather than sit on the sidelines.
"As a city, there's nothing we could do, we're not able to put up roadblocks and say, 'You can't come in,'" Ainslie said. "And it was quite obvious that we were going to have a lot of people here, even if we didn't call it the rally. The issue is if we did not officially sanction it as a rally, then we would not be able to prepare for it."
“We cannot stop people from coming,” Mayor Mark Carstensen says about a motorcycle rally that will bring tens of th… https://t.co/kSmBTD3yEO— New Day (@New Day)1596720214.0
There was also the economic impact to consider.
Officials told CNN that several businesses in the region said they would seek relief from Sturgis if they lost the money that typically flows in during the rally — one business even threatened to sue the city if the rally was postponed.
The Sturgis Buffalo Chip campground outside the city is a key part of the annual event, and its owner, Rod Woodruff, said the rally is essential to the survival of the business.
"This event is our raison d'etre," Woodruff said, CNN reported. "Our reason for existence is to service the motorcycle enthusiasts, the freedom of American people, period."
The city, businesses, and organizers are focusing on personal responsibility.
According to Johns Hopkins University, South Dakota has had 9,273 confirmed cases and 141 COVID deaths.
"Being prepared is what we put as a priority for everybody, both for the community and for our visitors," the mayor said. "We prepare for rallies every year, but this one take a little bit more," adding that the town is stressing personal responsibility.
Woodruff echoed the mayor's sentiments, stressing that though his campground is doing what it can to provide a safe environment, in the end, it all comes down to attendees' taking control of their own lives.
"These people on motorcycles, they're risking their life every time they come across an intersection that has a car that can come out there and kill them," Woodruff said. "And so they're not all that concerned about a virus when they know what is needed to do in order to stay safe and minimize the risks of infection."
What did Gov. Noem say?
Gov. Noem told Fox News' Laura Ingraham on Wednesday that she and her state are proud to again host the annual rally and noted that the country needs leaders and communities that will stand up for American freedoms.
"We need a few people to stand up, read our history, talk about the importance of our Constitution and the fact that these governors need to recognize that they need to uphold those freedoms that we hold so dear," she said, "and allow these people to take care of their families and make the right decisions and deal with this virus, much like we do every other challenge that comes our way and Americans tackle it together.
"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," Noem concluded. "We hope people come: Our economy benefits when people come and visit us."