Bikers Gather For The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally As Experts Fear A COVID Spread Hundreds of thousands of bikers are traveling to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota again this year. Last year's rally was linked to several hundred cases.

Health Experts Fear A Spread Of COVID As Motorcyclists Gather In South Dakota

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Despite the rapidly spreading delta variant, up to 700,000 bikers are expected to gather for the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that began Friday in western South Dakota. There are no vaccination, testing or masking requirements as people ride outdoors but also gather in tattoo parlors, bars, campsites and packed concert venues. Governor Kristi Noem and the Sturgis mayor say the rally is safe, but medical experts fear it will lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant and low vaccination rates in the Black Hills.

Arielle Zionts of South Dakota Public Radio reports from Sturgis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

ARIELLE ZIONTS, BYLINE: The Budweiser Clydesdales, a man dressed as Captain America, women wearing nothing but body paint, and a rider with a motorcycle covered in antlers and animal skins - just a few of the sights to see at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The tattooed, leather-clad crowd cheered on opening day as a parade headed down Main Street. Mayor Mark Carstensen said that unlike last year, there was no debate about hosting the rally. And it was too late to reconsider once the delta variant arrived.

MARK CARSTENSEN: By the time it happened, everything has already been planned, done, organized, ready to go. People are already here, so there - there's not much we can do.

ZIONTS: But medical experts are concerned about the virus spreading in the Black Hills and across the country once the riders return home. Dr. Shankar Kurra is the vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health, which serves western South Dakota.

SHANKAR KURRA: The Sturgis rally, unfortunately, increases the risk for a spread, because we know the delta variant is causing rises in, say, Arkansas, Missouri and several other states.

ZIONTS: Researchers from the CDC found at least 649 COVID cases linked to last year's rally. The agency says 44% of eligible people are fully vaccinated in Sturgis and surrounding Meade County as cases rise within South Dakota.

Lina Skipper blends into the Sturgis crowd with her rainbow hair and heart-shaped sunglasses as she takes a smoke break. She's vaccinated and wears a mask when tattooing clients.

LINA SKIPPER: We're not requiring clients to wear their masks because, unfortunately, it's not like a state mandate thing. So it's hard to ask people to wear it because you're going to face a lot of resistance.

ZIONTS: A group of Bikers for Christ gathers outside the community center. Member Jenny McKinney is a school bus driver who is not vaccinated.

JENNY MCKINNEY: A motorcycle can be more dangerous than COVID. Something's going to get you. You just need to know where you're going when you die.

ZIONTS: Shawna Garland also works with students. But the high school teacher is vaccinated and trying to avoid crowds.

SHAWNA GARLAND: Well, my friend's coming up to see her relation and asked if I wanted to go. And I said, yeah. I want to see what it's all about. So I just like to people watch and shop.

ZIONTS: After arriving on the ruby-red Indian Motorcycle he bought at last year's rally, Eric Kass walks across the street from a packed bar. The veteran and former corrections officer is not vaccinated.

ERIC KASS: I just love seeing the bikes, the camaraderie of people trying to get along, the tattoos. I just got a full arm tattoo - just love the atmosphere.

ZIONTS: Last year, Sturgis conducted mass testing for asymptomatic people to monitor the virus. This year, it's delivering at-home tests for those who want it. Dr. Kurra says Monument Health will monitor cases through testing and the amount of people walking through its hospital doors.

For NPR News, I'm Arielle Zionts in Sturgis, S.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS SONG, "MEET ME IN THE CITY")

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