Hundreds of people packed into a bar in Sturgis, South Dakota on Saturday night to hear a ZZ Top tribute band play, as fear continue about the huge annual motorcycle rally contributing to the spread of coronavirus.
An estimated 250,000 people have flocked to the city of 7,000 people this weekend for the start of the 10-day festival.
A total of 12 crashes were reported on Saturday, according to data released on Sunday and published in the Argus Leader, with most suffering non-life-threatening serious injuries.
One 64-year-old male driver, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown from his Harley Davidson on Saturday and suffered life-threatening injuries.
Dr Jonathan Reiner, a Washington DC-based cardiologist, warned on Saturday on CNN that the event has the potential to be a ‘super spreader’ event, with the majority of people opting not to wear a face mask.
Coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 5 million on Saturday.
South Dakota has more than 9,000 cases confirmed, and 146 deaths.
The tribute band, ZZ3, took the stage at the Full Throttle Saloon and filled the room with Texas blues-rock.
Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd were also scheduled to perform at the event, but canceled because of the pandemic.
The rally is expected to become one of the largest public gatherings since the pandemic began.
The attendance is expect to be roughly half the number of previous years, but local residents — and a few bikers — worry that the crowds could create perfect conditions for the spread of COVID-19.
Many who rode their bikes into Sturgis on Friday expressed defiance at the rules and restrictions that have marked life in many locales during the pandemic.
People rode from across the country to a state that offered a reprieve from coronavirus restrictions, as South Dakota has no special limits on indoor crowds, no mask mandates and a governor who is eager to welcome visitors and the money they bring.
‘Screw COVID,’ read the design on one T-shirt being hawked. ‘I went to Sturgis.’
Bikers rumbled past hundreds of tents filled with motorcycle gear, T-shirts and food.
Harley Davidson motorcycles were everywhere but masks were almost nowhere to be seen, with an Associated Press reporter counting fewer than 10 in a crowd of thousands over a period of several hours.
Daily virus cases have been trending upward in South Dakota, but the seven-day average is still only around 84, with fewer than two deaths per day.
The rally attracted crowds of retirees and people in age ranges considered to be at higher risk from the coronavirus. But for many who see the rally as an annual pilgrimage, the camaraderie and atmosphere could not be missed.
Marsha Schmid, who owns the Side Hack Saloon in Sturgis, was trying to keep her bar and restaurant from becoming a virus hot spot by spacing out indoor tables and offering plenty of hand sanitizer.
She also scaled back the number of bands hired for the rally, hoping the crowds would stay thin but still spend the cash that keeps her business viable for the rest of the year.
She pointed out that many of her employees depend on the rally and the tips they can make.
‘You’ve got people coming from all over the world,’ she said.
‘I just hope they are being responsible and if they don’t feel good, they stay away.’
On Sunday the South Dakota department of public safety said 58 people had been arrested on misdemeanor and felony drug arrests, 17 of them felonies.
At this time last year, 54 people had been arrested, with 23 of them being felony arrests.
Twenty-six people have been arrested for driving under the influence this year, as opposed to 22 this time last year.
While there have not been any fatal crashes so far during the rally, there have been 12 injury crashes so far, which is slightly more than this time last year. There have also been six non-injury crashes.
‘I fell in love with the rally. I love the sound of the bikes,’ said Bill Sudkamp, who was making his 20th consecutive rally appearance.
He and his wife, who declined to give their ages but said they were at elevated risk for COVID-19, were among the handful of people seen wearing masks in downtown Sturgis.
They were also planning to avoid bars.
Sudkamp told AP he felt it was inevitable that infections would spread in the packed bars and concert venues.
‘It looked like South Dakota was plateauing mostly,’ Sudkamp said.
‘It will be interesting to see what it looks like in two weeks.’