South Dakota governor encourages massive motorcycle rally as COVID rates soar

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Kristi Noem is appearing at a motorcycle rally event in Sturgis despite spiking numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Last year, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem encouraged people to come to Sturgis, South Dakota, for an annual motorcycle rally that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention subsequently found had resulted in "widespread transmission" of COVID-19. This year, Noem is one of the event's headliners — despite low vaccination rates in the state and spiking numbers of cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus.

"The Sturgis rally is about hopping on your bike and exploring this great country through our open roads. Bikers come here because they WANT to be here. And we love to see them!" Noem tweeted on Wednesday. "There's a risk associated with everything that we do in life. Bikers get that better than anyone."

Noem was announced last month as a celebrity participant in the annual Legends Ride charity event, to be held next Monday.

A year ago, Noem invited hundreds of thousands of bikers to come to the Sturgis rally, the self-proclaimed "largest motorcycle rally in the world," in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Reportedly, few people at the August 2020 event wore masks or practiced social distancing, despite stark warnings from public health experts that it might be a recipe for disaster.

Those officials were proven right: The virus spread as participants returned home, many bringing the coronavirus with them to their communities. CDC researchers said the 2020 rally had "many characteristics of a superspreading event," with hundreds of cases directly traced to the gathering.

A study published in September 2020 by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany, estimated that the extra COVID-19 cases stemming from the Sturgis rally likely added over $12 billion in public health costs nationally. "This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend," its authors pointed out.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told NPR on Wednesday that this year's event could fuel another wave of cases. "I understand how people want to move on from this pandemic — God knows I want to — but the reality is you can't ignore it," he warned. "You can't just tell the virus you're done with it."

NPR noted that the Sturgis gathering will not require any vaccination or testing for attendees and that safety guidelines are totally optional. It reported that just 46% of the population of Meade County, where the rally takes place, is fully vaccinated, and that rates are quite low in the counties where most of the people who attended in 2020 live.

Noem's lack of concern about pandemic is nothing new: She has made it part of her political brand. She was one of very few state governors who refused to issue a stay-at-home order, claiming to be supporting "citizens' rights." She rebuffed public health officials, refusing to issue any statewide mask mandates, saying instead that wearing or not wearing a mask is a "personal decision" and frequently appearing unmasked with constituents.

In June 2020, Noem treated her lack of virus response a selling point for her state, suggesting people move to South Dakota to escape safety requirements. "There's no governor in America that has trusted their people to make the right choices more than I have," she bragged.

But with her inaction, South Dakota has fared quite poorly during the pandemic. The state, with a population of 887,000 people, has had more than 125,500 COVID-19 cases, the third-worst per capita rate in the country. More than 2,000 South Dakotans have died — the nation's tenth-worst rate.

In November, Noem complained that her state was falsely being portrayed in the media as "worst in the world," when other states had "far higher new confirmed cases per 1,000 people compared to South Dakota."

At that point, only neighboring North Dakota had a higher rate of new cases.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.