The Black Hills of South Dakota roared with motorcycles and crowds this weekend as the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally kicked off, with mostly mask-less rallygoers packed shoulder-to-shoulder at bars despite a rise in COVID-19 cases in the state.

Organizers expect at least 700,000 people will be attending the 10-day rendezvous for motorcycle lovers, which kicked off on Friday. 

For some, it's a once-in-a-lifetime goal to make it to Sturgis while others faithfully make the pilgrimage year after year.


'It's just a great big family atmosphere, everybody´s out here for the same purpose - we all love motorcycles,' said Aaron Harper. 'If you're a motorcyclist, you have to see it at least once in your life.'

As noted by the Rapid City Journal, rallygoers are often seen walking with minimal clothing and body paint. 

One woman was seen walking downtown with a goat on a leash while a man sat on a bench with a rifle, the outlet reported.

Public health experts - and some locals - worried that the rally would again play host to coronavirus infections, after hundreds of rallygoers were infected last year. 


The Black Hills of South Dakota roared with motorcycles and crowds this weekend as the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally kicked off

The Black Hills of South Dakota roared with motorcycles and crowds this weekend as the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally kicked off

A group of men are seen posing with a woman wearing little clothing during the Sturgis motorcycle rally this weekend

A group of men are seen posing with a woman wearing little clothing during the Sturgis motorcycle rally this weekend

Rallygoers are often seen walking with minimal clothing and body paint

Rallygoers are often seen walking with minimal clothing and body paint

Only about 46% of adults who live in the county that hosts Sturgis are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 60.6% nationwide. 

Virus infections are on the rise in South Dakota after a steady decline through the spring and early summer - though the state has the fewest new virus cases per capita in the United States. 

The Department of Health reported a 68% jump in virus infections last week, with the highly contagious delta variant spurring a larger share of those infections.

Last year's rally transformed Sturgis, usually a quiet community of under 7,000 residents, into a travel hub comparable to a major U.S. city. 

One analysis of anonymous cellphone data found that well over half of counties in the country were visited by someone who attended Sturgis. 

Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen, second from right, is pictured during the rally this weekend

Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen, second from right, is pictured during the rally this weekend

A bison is seen in South Dakota as Sturgis prepared for the 10-day motorcycle rally this weekend

A bison is seen in South Dakota as Sturgis prepared for the 10-day motorcycle rally this weekend

A man is seen dressed like Captain America as he prepared for the rally in Sturgis this weekend

A man is seen dressed like Captain America as he prepared for the rally in Sturgis this weekend

Captain America is seen waving at people on the back of a Harley Davidson motorcycle in South Dakota

Captain America is seen waving at people on the back of a Harley Davidson motorcycle in South Dakota

A horse-drawn Budweiser buggy is pictured clopping down a road in Sturgis for the opening ceremony of the rally

A horse-drawn Budweiser buggy is pictured clopping down a road in Sturgis for the opening ceremony of the rally

A group of bikers attending the Sturgis motorcycle rally are pictured posing in front of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota

A group of bikers attending the Sturgis motorcycle rally are pictured posing in front of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota

A couple holds up the peace signh while riding on a Harley Davidson motorcycle ahead of the Sturgis rally

A couple holds up the peace signh while riding on a Harley Davidson motorcycle ahead of the Sturgis rally

A couple is seen riding on an Indian motorcycle with three large American flags ahead of the Sturgis rally

A couple is seen riding on an Indian motorcycle with three large American flags ahead of the Sturgis rally 

A team of researchers from the Centers for Disease Control concluded that last year's rally ended up looking like a 'superspreader event.'

This year, the rally is expected to be even bigger. The city held an opening ceremony Friday for the 81st iteration of the event - something it skipped in 2020 in an attempt to tamp down the crowds.

Concerns over the event have pitted local health workers against each other - with some nurses claiming those concerned about the event should move and others blasting the rally as irresponsible.  

Rikki Plaggemeyer, 46, works as an emergency-room nurse manager in Sturgis and told the Daily Beast that she hears of people that live in town and don't love the rally.

'If you don't like to live in Sturgis, and you don't like the Sturgis Rally, you shouldn't live here,' she said.

'It gives us great experiences in the ER and in the hospital, and I spend most of my time during the rally here.'

Registered nurse Jamie Lascelles, 30, agreed with Plaggemeyer but added that the rally raises other health concerns as well, like the use of drugs and alcohol.


'We do see our fair share of drug use and alcohol use,' Lascelles said. 

Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health in Rapid City, worried that the rally raises a 'very high risk' of infecting people with COVID-19. 

'My concern would be with the Delta variant, which as we know is highly transmissible,'Kurra said.

He added: 'The fact is, it's a mass gathering event. It puts people at risk. That's the nature of this virus.'

The Department of Health in Minnesota, which neighbors South Dakota, said last year it had at least 50 residents contract COVID-19 after last year's rally and released a warning that this year could be worse, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

'The risk increases with larger groups and longer durations of exposure, especially in settings where there may be many unvaccinated people and social distancing and wearing masks aren't routinely practiced,' officials said in a statement.

The statement added: 'Any event or setting that is conducive to spreading the virus will continue to allow more variants to develop, undermining the gains we have already made with this virus.'

Motorcycles fill the streets of Sturgis, S.D on Friday as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began

Motorcycles fill the streets of Sturgis, S.D on Friday as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began

The annual rally returns just as coronavirus cases in the state are rising with the more contagious delta variant

The annual rally returns just as coronavirus cases in the state are rising with the more contagious delta variant 

Rallygoers dance at a rock show in Sturgis on Thursday ahead of the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Rallygoers dance at a rock show in Sturgis on Thursday ahead of the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Motorcycles cruised through downtown Sturgis on Thursday ahead of the rally, which health officials worry will be another 'super-spreader' event

Motorcycles cruised through downtown Sturgis on Thursday ahead of the rally, which health officials worry will be another 'super-spreader' event

People sing and dance at a rock concert on Thursday ahead of the Sturgis motorcycle rally that started on Friday

People sing and dance at a rock concert on Thursday ahead of the Sturgis motorcycle rally that started on Friday

Motorcycles fill the streets of Sturgis, S.D on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began. The annual rally returns just as coronavirus cases in the state are rising with the more contagious delta variant. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Motorcycles fill the streets of Sturgis, S.D on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began. The annual rally returns just as coronavirus cases in the state are rising with the more contagious delta variant. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

Bobby McCrary, right, shares a laugh during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Friday. McCary rode his motorcycle from Texas for the gathering

Bobby McCrary, right, shares a laugh during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Friday. McCary rode his motorcycle from Texas for the gathering

A look at the crowds attending Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
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Jody Perewitz, the rally's ceremonial grand marshal, said she was 'ecstatic' to see how many people came for the opening ceremony. Motorcycles stretched for blocks as crowds strolled Main Street, the heart of the rally.

The biggest step city officials took this year to mitigate the risk of infections was allowing rallygoers to drink on public property, with the goal of spreading the crowds into the open air.

Bars and food stalls that stretch for blocks also offer open-air seating.

Dan Ainslie, Sturgis's city manager, told The New York Times that Sturgis was also 'encouraging people who are in a high-risk category, whether it be age or because of comorbidities, that they come next year.'

Other local residents expressed some concern about the event in comments to The New York Times.

Toni Fisher, 63, said she and her husband are both vaccinated - but she has fibromyalgia and was worried about contracting a breakthrough infection ahead of the rally.

Fisher, who owns a local business that was 'ravaged' by the pandemic, said that precautions have been thrown to the wind this year by attendees fatigued with coronavirus restrictions.

'This year it's hog-wild. Nobody cares,' she said.

Hundreds of motorcycles are pictured in downtown Sturgis as Crossfit champion Matthew Frasier rides through the Sturgis Motorcycle Festival

Hundreds of motorcycles are pictured in downtown Sturgis as Crossfit champion Matthew Frasier rides through the Sturgis Motorcycle Festival

A man is pictured leading four horses down a road in Sturgis ahead of the raly while a number of RVs are parked in the bakground

A man is pictured leading four horses down a road in Sturgis ahead of the raly while a number of RVs are parked in the bakground

A man is seen on his motorcycle in front of the Sturgis Bar & Grill in South Dakota ahead of the rally this weekend

A man is seen on his motorcycle in front of the Sturgis Bar & Grill in South Dakota ahead of the rally this weekend

The South Dakota Department of Tourism has estimated that rally brings in about $800 million in revenue for the state, The New York Times reported.

'We're out in the wide open,' said Pam Williamson, a rallygoer from Kansas who also attended last year's gathering. 'If you want to wear a mask, that's your business. If you don't, that's your business.'

Last year's rally was marked by defiance of coronavirus precautions, with T-shirts on sale that read, 'Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.' 

This year, the pandemic appeared to hardly be an afterthought amid a crowd that embraces the risks and lifestyle of the open road.

'A lot of that, I don't worry too much about,' said J.J. Vilella, who said he has not received a COVID-19 vaccine. 'If it happens, it happens.'

The rally is known as a place where people let loose, strolling the streets in minimal attire and body painting. On Thursday, one woman walked through downtown with a goat on a leash. A man sat on a bench with a rifle as passersby smiled and nodded.

Health experts say big gatherings provide fertile ground to start a wave of infections. That didn't seem to slow the Sturgis crowds.

'It's in the back of your mind, you think about it a little bit,' said Harper. The Nebraska resident has not received a vaccine yet, but said he intends to. 'But you've got to live your life and enjoy it and have fun still.'

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