A Minnesota biker who attended the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota two weeks ago has died of COVID-19, the first death linked to the 400,000-person event.
The man, who was in his 60s, had underlying conditions and was in intensive care for several weeks after coming home from the rally, Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, told The Washington Post.
His case is one of at least 260 related to the event, according to a Post survey of health data. Epidemiologists say that figure is likely to be a significant undercount and the actual number may never be known because many attendees who return to their home towns are reluctant to be tested or provide contact tracing details.
Cellphone data collated and analyzed by research firm Camber Systems found that 61 percent of all U.S. counties had been visited by a Sturgis attendee.
Before the nine-day rally—believed to be the largest event held worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic—health professionals had grave safety concerns and provided warnings to steer clear of the congested event.
The Daily Beast reported that some community members confronted City of Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen and the City Council at a hearing, warning that it was a “huge, foolish mistake” to host the rally this year.
“We have freedom, but we also have responsibility,” ICU nurse Linda Janovy said at the June 10 hearing. “You are not going to make everybody happy. Your responsibility is to keep the public safe, as safe as you can.”
Even the official motorcycle brand of the rally, Harley-Davidson, didn’t participate, noting concerns about the virus. “Usually, we have trucks and staff and products and demos and everything,” a company spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “This year, we aren’t doing that.”
Nonetheless, the state’s department of transport said 460,000 vehicles attended the rally. Many attendees dismissed the risk of spreading COVID-19. Smash Mouth performed a concert at the event and screamed “fuck that COVID shit!” to an audience of few mask-wearers.
A week before the event, attendees took to Facebook to denounce the deadly virus. “On my way I ain’t scared of the media flue or as we call it round here election flue see ya soon sd,” J.F. Watson of Ohio posted.