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Sturgis biker rally fallout may have costly health consequences

People attended a concert at a massive motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., in August.
People attended a concert at a massive motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., in August.Amy Harris/Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Last month’s annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, already linked to at least one COVID-19 death and hundreds of positive cases, could ultimately result in more than $12.2 billion in health costs related to the pandemic, according to a new study from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.

The study, dubbed “The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19,” described this year’s rally as “a mass gathering conducted during a pandemic against the guidance of CDC. "

The annual event, which draws people from across the country, was responsible for a significant portion of new COVID-19 cases in the United States between Aug. 2 and Sept. 2, according to the study, and the financial costs will mount.

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“Adding the number of new cases due to the Rally in South Dakota estimated by synthetic control ... brings the total number of cases to 266,796 or 19 percent of 1.4 million new cases of COVID-19 in the United States between August 2nd 2020 and September 2nd 2020,” the study said.

According to the researchers, if “we conservatively assume that all of these cases were non-fatal, then these cases represent a cost of over $12.2 billion, based on the statistical cost of a COVID-19 case of $46,000 estimated by” a prior research team.

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

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said in a phone interview that the study’s estimates on the total number of cases linked to the rally and the total cost were “stunning.”

“It’s possible,” he said of the findings. “It’s higher than I would have expected, but given how many people were at the rally, it is possible.”

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And if confirmed, those numbers would place the rally in unflattering company among super-spreader events, according to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner and current resident fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“The estimates in this paper, if confirmed, would place Sturgis as the largest studied super spreading event in U.S.,” Gottlieb tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Minnesota health officials last week reported that a man who attended the rally had died in their state of COVID-19.

The 10-day rally went forward despite fears it could become a super-spread event, with South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem welcoming bikers and the tourist dollars they spend. Bikers crowded into bars and rock shows, mostly ignoring social distancing recommendations. Few wore masks.

While any large gathering is dangerous in the COVID era, Jha said, “when they occur outdoors and people are wearing masks, they’re generally much safer.”

He noted that many Sturgis rally goers packed into bars and restaurants, where “I am confident that people were not wearing masks or distancing, at least not in the photos I saw. That is where the super spreading really happens.”

Over a 10-day period, Jha said, “it’s entirely possible” that someone could spread the highly contagious disease to “a very large number of people who then go and spread to other people. This is what we all worried about.”

A rally spokesperson didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment Tuesday morning.

But in a recent statement, Noem, a Republican, touted her state’s approach to containing the pandemic.

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“Here in South Dakota, because we didn’t shut down our state, the recovery story is far stronger,” Noem said. “According to the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, South Dakota had the fewest low-income job losses of any state in our region, and as of the end of June, we’d already recovered nearly all of those losses. Our weekly initial unemployment claims continue to drop. This is positive news coming into the Labor Day weekend.”

At least 290 people in 12 states have tested positive for the coronavirus since attending the rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people, according to an Associated Press survey published last week. The Rapid City Journal reported that seven-day total for the rally from Aug. 7 was 365,979 people, down just 7.5 percent from 2019.


“These kind of large, inter-state/regional gatherings are almost a worst-case scenario for COVID-19 transmission,” said Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, in an e-mail message. “As we saw in the recent super-spreading event in Maine, when you have lots of individuals travel to the same place, COVID can end up gaining a foothold across a wide geographic area as a result.”

It’s also known, Scarpino said, that “outdoor gatherings, probably not to the size of Sturgis, with high levels of mask wearing can be mostly safe. So again, the fact that mask wearing rates were low is a huge part of the problem. Of course, one of the biggest challenges in the US right now is performing accurate case investigation to determine the source of an individual’s infection and coordinating cross-state contact tracing and data sharing. As a result, we may never know the true extent of cases caused by Strugis.”

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Authors of the study, including Dhaval M. Dave, a Bentley economics professor who’s also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, wrote that areas with stronger “mitigation” policies, or measures in place to stem the spread of the virus, experienced less spread from returning rally attendees.

“While we cannot rule out that there may be other explanations besides policy differences to explain the heterogeneous inflow effects we observe, they are suggestive of the fact that the local COVID-19 policy environment may serve as an important defense (or facilitator) of COVID-19 resulting from a super-spreader event,” the study said.

South Dakota as of Tuesday morning was reporting a COVID-19 case rate of 1,713 infections per 100,000 people, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Louisiana currently has the highest rate at 3,300 per 100,000, while Massachusetts was ranked 19th Tuesday morning at 1,892 per 100,000, according to the CDC website.

In South Dakota, the governor said in her recent statement that business owners chafing under lockdowns in other states should feel free to relocate to her stretch of the northern midwest.

“We’re hearing from lots of folks interested in not only visiting South Dakota, but moving here full-time,” Noem said. “If business owners are sick and tired of the lockdowns in other states, I want them to know that they have another option. They can come to South Dakota. We respect our people’s rights, and we won’t shut businesses down. We’re open for opportunity, and on my watch, we always will be.”

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.