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‘We cannot stop people’: 250,000 are expected at annual South Dakota motorcycle rally

FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2016 file photo, bikers ride down Main Street in downtown Sturgis, S.D., before the 76th Sturgis motorcycle rally officially begins. South Dakota, which has seen an uptick in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, is bracing to host hundreds of thousands of bikers for the 80th edition of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Over a quarter of a million people are expected to rumble through western South Dakota. (Josh Morgan/Rapid City Journal via AP, File)

Health officials are still warning against even small gatherings, and states with relatively low spread are ordering visitors from hot spots to self-quarantine.

But come Friday, about 250,000 people from across the country are still expected to start descending on a roughly 7,000-person community in South Dakota for one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world, a 10-day extravaganza so deeply rooted that Sturgis calls itself the City of Riders.

The mayor of Sturgis says there's not much to do but encourage "personal responsibility," set up sanitation stations and give out masks - though face coverings won't be required.

"We cannot stop people from coming," Mayor Mark Carstensen said Thursday on CNN.

Worried residents, however, say officials should have canceled the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in a state where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem resisted stay-at-home orders and mask rules - and last month welcomed another mass event, President Donald Trump's Fourth of July weekend speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore. A city survey found that more than 60 percent of Sturgis residents wanted the event postponed, the Associated Press reported.

"This is a huge, foolish mistake to make to host the rally this year," Sturgis resident Linda Chaplin warned city counselors earlier this summer, as a debate raged, according to the AP. "The government of Sturgis needs to care most for its citizens."

"My grandma is absolutely terrified because she has diabetes and is in her 80s and has lupus," another resident told CNN. "If she gets it, it's a death sentence."

But the spectacle in South Dakota's Black Hills is hugely important to the local economy, bringing in $1.3 million in city and state tax revenue last year, according to the Argus Leader. A mayor's letter overviewing Sturgis describes how the city "comes alive" with half a million visitors during a typical August rally, suddenly transformed into "the largest community in the state" with concerts and races.

On June 15, city council members voted 8 to 1 to forge ahead with the 80-year tradition, local news outlet NewsCenter 1 reported, albeit without the usual seating in a plaza.

Speaking Thursday to CNN, Carstensen said that keeping the rally has been "a difficult decision."

He noted that the city will be expanding a program to deliver supplies to the homes of those worried about the virus. But there are no quarantine recommendations for bikers from hot spot states, the mayor said, and leaders are just "hoping people make the right choices." Visitors have already been flocking to the Black Hills amid the pandemic, he said.

Backing up local leaders' decision is the governor, who has been disdainful of coronavirus restrictions throughout the pandemic. Noem said on Fox News on Wednesday that her state has successfully held other large gatherings, including Trump's event at Mount Rushmore.

"We hope people come," Noem said of the motorcycle rally. "Our economy benefits when people come and visit us."

As governor after governor - Democrat and Republican - turned to stay-at-home orders earlier this year, Noem denounced "herd mentality" and said such a move was not right for her rural state: "South Dakota is not New York City," she said. A South Dakota pork-processing plant soon became one of the country's biggest coronavirus clusters in the spring - but cases eventually dipped and the sparsely populated state did not shatter daily records this summer like many Southern and Western states.

Average new daily cases reported in South Dakota have risen in recent weeks but remain under 100, and the state records an average of one or two covid-19 deaths a day.

The concern: What happens when tourists pour in from around a country where the virus is still spreading out of control?

Benjamin Aaker, the president of the South Dakota State Medical Association, told CNN on Thursday that he's worried but insisted the rally can be held safely if people follow recommendations such as social distancing, hand-washing and wearing masks.

Aaker stopped short of calling for those precautions to be mandated, though.

"We're the physicians to the state of South Dakota," he said of his organization, "much like the physician is to the person that comes in to see him or her, and we make recommendations."

“It’s already here,” he said of the coronavirus, “but is it going to get worse with an event such as this? . . . If we don’t take those proper precautions, it will.”

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