South Dakota motorcycle rally backed by governor led to $12B in public health costs

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Hundreds of cases, including one death, have been tied to the August event in Sturgis.

A motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, last month likely caused more than $12 billion in public health costs, according to a new study.

In a report titled "The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19," published this month by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, a nonprofit research group based in Bonn, Germany, experts assessed the impact of the nearly 500,000-biker gathering, which took place between August 7 and 16.

They determined that "counties that contributed the highest inflows of rally attendees experienced a 7.0 to 12.5 percent increase in COVID-19 cases relative to counties that did not contribute inflows."

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"We conclude that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally generated public health costs of approximately $12.2 billion" due to the additional cases, the authors wrote. "This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend."

At least a dozen states have reported COVID-19 cases related to the event. Some 260 infections and one death have been tied to it so far, and according to NPR, the estimated number of cases is still steadily increasing.

"It's definitely frustrating because we certainly aren't surprised to see cases," Kris Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease division at the Minnesota Department of Health, told the outlet.

The annual event, which dates back to 1938, bills itself as the "largest motorcycle rally in the world." Despite public health officials' warnings that it could be a "recipe" for disaster that could worsen the coronavirus' spread, the event proceeded this year with little social distancing and little mask-wearing.

Gov. Kristi Noem herself endorsed the rally in an August interview.

"People have been gathering. We've been back to normal for over three months here in South Dakota," Noem told told Fox News on an August 4. "So we know we can have these events, give people information, let them protect their health but still enjoy their way of life and enjoy events like the Sturgis motorcycle rally. We hope people come."

Noem was one of just a handful of governors who refused to issue any stay-at-home order when the pandemic hit earlier this year, even as cases spiked at meat plants in the state. She bragged that her decision not to shut things down was protecting "citizens' rights."

She has subsequently touted her lack of a response as pro-freedom and made it a sales pitch to encourage people to move to her state. "There’s no governor in America that has trusted their people to make the right choices more than I have," she claimed in June.

The state still has no mask mandate.

A Noem spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Noem's laissez faire approach has not kept South Dakotans safe. According to data from the Washington Post, only one state (North Dakota) has had a higher per capita number of new cases in the past week.

South Dakota's 7-day average of new reported cases currently stands at 30 per 100,000 residents. Its percentage of positive tests — 19% — is also second highest in the nation.

To date, South Dakota has seen at least 15,300 COVID-19 cases and 173 deaths.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.