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Native American tribes set up checkpoints to block attendees of motorcycle festival in South Dakota

Native American tribes have set up checkpoints to block thousands of bikers attending a 10-day motorcycle rally in South Dakota from entering reservation lands.

The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe has set up strategic checkpoints to prevent attendees of the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally from coming in for fear of a potential coronavirus outbreak in the city of 7,000 people.

The annual event, which is anticipated to attract 250,000 bikers, kicked off Friday and guests have been seen without masks, as they’re not required, and flouting social distancing guidelines as they packed in for concerts, bars, and riding events.

The Cheyenne River Sioux announced Saturday the checkpoints would be set up as a part of the tribe’s larger COVID-19 prevention policy, which was launched by seven tribes that make up the Great Sioux Nation, spokesman Remi Bald Eagle said.

Federal and state authorities claim the checkpoints are illegal and the tribes have sued.

Only commercial and emergency vehicles will be let through the checkpoints onto reservation land, a duty officer for the tribe said to The Guardian on Saturday.

Officials say a number of bikers have tried to enter the land but were turned away.

Other reservations in the area including the Oglala Sioux were also turning away bikers that tried to pass through sovereign land over the weekend.

Under the Cheyenne River’s tribal guidelines non-residents driving non-commercial out-of-state vehicles are never allowed through the reservation.

During the rally non-commercial vehicles even with South Dakota plates cannot get through.

The Department of Transportation released a map showing which roads are closed to tourists including parts of U.S. 212 and SD 20, 63 and 65 on the reservation. 

The Sturgis rally is alarming for locals as it’s the largest gathering of people since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city usually sees half a million people for the 80-year tradition but about half that number is expected due to the pandemic at the event that typically puts $800million into the local economy. The spectacle raked in $1.3million in city and state tax revenue last year, according to the Argus Leader. 

Native American tribes in the US have also been hard hit in the coronavirus pandemic.

Today there are 71,800 Native Americans live in South Dakota with nine tribal governments representing the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Yankton Sioux Tribe, according to Travel South Dakota.

The Ogalala Sioux recorded 163 coronavirus cases last week. The Cheyenne River Sioux had cases rise to 79, according to the tribe’s website.

South Dakota has fared better than other states in the pandemic but the gathering is a point of concern as hotspots have emerged in states across the Midwest with the roll back on quarantine guidelines.

According to the state’s latest data there are 9,477 cases in the state, 146 deaths, and 48 hospitalizations from the deadly virus.

Some attendees at the rally have been deliberately defiant of the virus.

One T-shirt on sale at the event says ‘Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.’

‘I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to be cooped up all my life either,’ attendee Stephen Sample, 66, who rode his Harley-Davidson from Arizona, said to Associated Press.  

‘I think we’re all willing to take a chance,’ he said, but acknowledged the trip ‘could be a major mistake.’

‘I’ve not seen one single person wearing a mask,’ bartender Jessica Christian, 29, said to the Guardian. ‘It’s just pretty much the mentality that, “If I get it, I get it.”‘

‘In downtown Sturgis it’s just madness. People not socially distancing, everybody touching each other. It’ll be interesting to see how that turns out,’ she added.

South Dakota’s Republican governor Kristi Noem supported holding the rally citing Donald Trump’s Mount Rushmore rally last month attended by several thousand people that didn’t lead to a virus break out.

She tweeted last week: ‘I trusted my people, they trusted me, and South Dakota is in a good spot in our fight against COVID-19. The #Sturgis motorcycle rally starts this weekend, and we’re excited for visitors to see what our great state has to offer!’

However, in May over 60% of Sturgis 6,900 residents who responded to a city council survey said they wanted to cancel the rally. 

But in June a council voted to move ahead nonetheless but included measures like hand-sanitizing stations.  

‘The state of South Dakota has been the freedom state and the city of Sturgis has stayed true to that,’ Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen said.

He said he’s determined to encourage ‘personal responsibility’ among attendees.          

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. 

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

‘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.’ 

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.’ 

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.  

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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