Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Linked To 250K New COVID-19 Cases, Research Says

New research and analysis published by health economists estimates that the Sturgis "super-spreader" event could cost $12.2 billion in public health—and that’s the conservative estimate.

A woman wearing a Trump flag dances while watching a band perform during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 7, 2020 in Sturgis, South Dakota. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a Trump flag dances while watching a band perform during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on August 7, 2020 in Sturgis, South Dakota. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

A new paper published by a group of health economists and academics estimates that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held in South Dakota in August could be linked to more than 250,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in the U.S.— “roughly 19 percent of the national cases during this timeframe,” according to one of the authors.

The economists also estimated that the rally “generated substantial public health costs” of at least $12.2 billion. They used the statistical value of a COVID-19 case as estimated by other researchers to determine that number, which is conservative and assumes that all of the confirmed related cases were non-fatal.

“This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend,” the authors wrote.

The economists used anonymized smartphone data to plot out foot traffic in and around Sturgis, and cited CDC data to show that the rally “caused spread of COVID-19 cases both locally and in the home counties of those who traveled” to the event and then returned home. States including Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Washington and Wyoming “saw a 10.7 percent increase in COVID-19 cases more than three weeks following the opening of the Sturgis Rally, and about two weeks following the close of events,” according to the paper.

The 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was a 10-day event in Sturgis, a small city with a population of approximately 7,000 people. More than 460,000 people flooded into the area for the event, which featured dozens of live music concerts, races and bike shows. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem welcomed attendees, despite public health experts’ concerns at the time. 

The new paper suggests those concerns were founded, emphasizing the lack of government-ordered mitigation policies such as mandatory mask-wearing and enforcement of social distancing. The paper also highlighted that many attendees spent time indoors in local bars and restaurants, as opposed to outdoors.

The economists noted that COVID-19 mitigation efforts at the rally “were largely left to the ‘personal responsibility’ of attendees, and post-opening day media reports suggest that social distancing and mask-wearing were quite rare in Sturgis.” 

The paper’s authors wrote: “The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally represents a situation where many of the ‘worst case scenarios’ for superspreading occurred simultaneously: the event was prolonged, included individuals packed closely together, involved a large out-of-town population (a population that was orders of magnitude larger than the local population), and had low compliance with recommended infection countermeasures such as the use of masks. The only large factors working to prevent the spread of infection was the outdoor venue, and low population density in the state of South Dakota.”

Gov. Noem responded negatively to the research, calling it “fiction,” not science, and called it an “attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis.”

According to trackers independent of the research cited in this paper, including data collected by The New York Times, South Dakota saw a spike in reported COVID-19 cases following the event. Data from the South Dakota Department of Health also showed a substantial increase in cases per 1,000 population from the end of July as compared to the end of August.

The paper’s authors took policies into account, describing the state’s public health response to the pandemic as “largely … a hands-off approach, centered around private personal responsibility.”

“South Dakota was one of 8 states to never issue a statewide shelter-in-place order or a safer-at-home order” encouraging people to stay home, the economists wrote. The stats has also not implemented mask mandates or restrictions on travel or large gatherings. Full indoor dining is permitted in bars and restaurants.

One of the paper’s authors, Andrew Friedson of the University of Colorado-Denver, addressed the difference in spread following the Sturgis rally as compared to other events, such as mass Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Friedson is an Associate Professor of Economics at UC-D.

The paper opened with a reference to Smash Mouth, who performed at the rally. It quotes lead vocalist Steve Harwell when he said, “Now we’re all here together tonight. And we’re being human once again. F*ck that Covid sh*t.” Journalist Jim Roberts tweeted a photo of a Sturgis rally shirt that encapsulated that theme.

Related: Thousands Of Bikers Risk Health To Attend Motorcycle Rally In South Dakota

The paper concluded that the rally led to “substantial” local and nationwide contagion, and that the $12.2 billion public health estimate provides “a sense of how valuable restrictions on mass gatherings can be in this context.”

“There is mounting evidence that statewide policy interventions such as shelter-in-place orders and mask wearing mandates may play an important role in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the authors wrote, echoing what infectious disease experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic.

The U.S. currently has more than 6.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, millions more than any other country, including nearly 190,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.