Opinion: Bikers and COVID-19 visit Sturgis

From the corner of Main Street and Harley-Davidson Way in Sturgis, South Dakota, you could have looked in all four directions and seen an endless array of motorcycles parked against the curbs and in the middle of the streets. It was the “80th Annual Motorcycle Rally” weekend, and the bikers showed up en mass. But not “en mask.”

This past week, Sturgis (population 6,627) was host to about 250,000 attendees, roughly half as many enthusiasts as last year, probably because of the pandemic. But among those who showed up, coronavirus was not a major issue. Forty-seven year-old Michael Brown from Lemoyne, Neb., said, “My biggest concern is drivers — they just don’t pay attention to bikes. But I don’t know one person in a six-state radius who has had COVID. I think it is all just political.”

Monica Hartman, 43, from La Junta, Colo., commented, “We got married here three years ago, so we come out here every year for our anniversary. Now we have a reason to come here every year. We have no concerns — if we are going to get sick, then we’ll get sick.” And Thomas Seale, 41, from Denver, Colo., opined, “I’m not convinced it’s real. I think it’s all nothing more than the flu. If I die from the virus, it was just meant to be.”

These attendees, along with others, can be seen on The New York Times website, accompanying the story by Mark Walker. Their opinions seem to have been shared by the vast majority of others who spent several days in local shops, drinking at the Full Throttle Saloon, walking the streets, or camping at Buffalo Chip campgrounds without face masks or attention to distancing.

Egocentrism

One of my concerns about the comments made by some of the attendees is that their frame of reference seems to be solly egocentric. “If I get the virus….” “If I get sick….” “If I die….” Now, with more than five months of experience and study, we know that COVID-19 is a communal virus; it is spread from person to person in the water vapor that we exhale. If a biker from South Carolina gets the virus in Sturgis, she or he will carry it back to the deep South as well as any stops made along the way.

Contact tracing will be nearly impossible. Even if a biker keeps a journal of the adventure, it’s unlikely that she or he will have sufficient information about the people who were encountered throughout the trip. Moreover, statistically, it’s likely that some of the attendees were COVID positive before they set out for the Sturgis rally. So, it’s not just about them. It’s about the people they met on the way to South Dakota, those who they mingled with in Sturgis, and the folks who might have contracted the disease from them on their way home. In other words, it’s a medical nightmare.

Fake news

My other concern is that some of the comments made by attendees indicates that they don’t believe we’re experiencing a pandemic or they think that COVID-19 is “just the flu.” COVID-19 is called a “novel” virus because it is a new virus and people do not have immunity to it. Vaccines may be months away, and the long-term effects are unknown.

What should be of concern to the bikers in Sturgis is the medical data about the incubation period and transmission of COVID-19. This virus spreads more easily than influenza and may be infectious two days before any symptoms appear. People with moderate cases may infect others for seven to twelve days, and people with more severe cases remain infectious for as many as 14 days. Consequently, when they leave Sturgis, the smart thing to do is to self-quarantine for two full weeks. Failure to do so can have serious effects on others.

At the present time, researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical Center believe that the coronavirus can cause damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain, and other organs. The net effect may not be known for years, or even decades. Whether there might be genetic complications is currently unknown. The significant point is that there is a great deal that we don’t know about this virus. So for safety’s sake, we should not treat it like an “ordinary” annual event.

I can’t help but think back to Thomas Seale’s comment: “If I die from the virus, it was just meant to be.” But, when you are dead, you don’t know that you’re dead. All of the pain is felt by your loved ones, and they could be the next victims. I hope that someone has put this sign on the road leading out of Sturgis: “THINK ABOUT THE CONSEQUENCES.”

• • •

Jim Glynn is a retired professor of sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.