Motorcycle riders are about to inherit a bad reputation around the world as hundreds of thousands crowd into the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally this weekend.
As riders start to roll into the town, organisers predict attendance will be about 250,000, down from an annual average of almost half a million.
Yet it will still be the biggest crowd of people in the one place in the world since the pandemic was declared six months ago.
That will be a tremendous black mark against motorcyclists everywhere and already America and the world’s media is massing in the small town to record the spectacle.
The number of vendors is down from about 700-800 to 330 as some companies decide it is not worth risking the health of workers nor the associated bad image.
Harley-Davidson employees are forbidden to travel so they will not be there but will have a lot of signage at the event.
Meanwhile, Indian Motorcycle will be on hand offering demo rides.
The company vaguely claim they will do it “in a way that keeps them safe and makes sure we are keeping employees and the dealership employees safe when they are interacting”.
Town leaders say they will be handing out voluntary masks, advising social distancing and offering testing to the crowd but it is doubtful many of the freedom-loving riders will comply.
They say there is little likelihood of transmission in the outdoors event, although a lot of the activities do take place in close quarters and in clubs, hotels and inside venues.
Currently South Dakota is recording about 75 new cases a day and increasing.
In April, the Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls became what was then the nation’s largest coronavirus hot spot when more than 600 staff contracted the virus.
So far, the state has recorded 9273 cases and 141 deaths with four in the past day.
Death projections for the state are 250 by December 1 as restrictions ease. That could be reduce to 180 if masks were made mandatory.
However, South Dakota is among several states that has not locked down nor made masks mandatory.
Those projections for deaths don’t take into account the Sturgis rally.
Nor do they show how the virus can be spread in other states and countries as rally goers head home, taking the infection with them.
As this becomes evident, the stigma that motorcyclists have spread the virus will taint riders everywhere.
Vote against rally
Of the 7000 Sturgis citizens, 63% voted not to hold the rally, but a gift wholesaler in nearby Rapid City threatened to sue the council.
Sturgis City Council member Terry Keszler says they should have postponed or cancelled the rally in March.
However, Doreen Allison Creed, Meade County commissioner who represents Sturgis, says the county lacked the authority to shut down the rally because much of it takes place on state-licensed campgrounds.
“We are either going to be a great success story or failure,” she says.
“I truly believe it could not have been stopped.”
The state’s Department of Tourism has estimated that the annual festival generates about $800 million in revenue.
Neighbouring Minnesota Department of Health commissioner Jan Malcolm called the decision to go ahead with the event “disappointing”.
Malcolm and other state public health leaders have warned that the rally could be a potential petri dish for spreading the virus here and across the nation.
Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says the rally could cause a major virus spread.
“Come mid-August to late August, early September, Sturgis will have one hell of an imprint on this country,” he says.