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South Dakota Motorcycle Rally To Take Place Despite Local Opposition

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The annual summer motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., draws hundreds of thousands of people. This year, crowds were expected to be especially big in honor of the event's 80th anniversary. And even though most people in the small town that hosts the rally wanted it canceled, it's happening anyway. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger reports from Sturgis, where events kick off tomorrow.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Every year, the small Black Hills town of Sturgis, population 7,000, is bombarded with bikers riding loud Harley motorcycles.

WARREN REED: All right. Hit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

STRUBINGER: Warren and Deb Reed from Shakopee, Minn., have made the trip 13 times.

DEB REED: My favorite ride is Iron Mountain. And then I also like Spearfish Canyon. It's beautiful.

W REED: This year, we were fortunate enough to see some buffalo and some antelope and mule deer. So it was awesome.

STRUBINGER: All signs had pointed toward a banner year for the rally, maybe topping the record 750,000 who came five years ago. Now officials are expecting maybe 250,000 people over the course of the nine-day event.

Rod Woodruff owns Sturgis Buffalo Chip, one of the largest biker campgrounds in the area. He says people will still definitely come.

ROD WOODRUFF: You know, they're coming to see friends and, you know, live their lives with as much freedom as they can. And they come here because they feel like they can enjoy that sense of freedom that doesn't exist everywhere else.

STRUBINGER: Woodruff's 600-acre campground is also part music festival venue. Acts like Willie Nelson and ZZ Top canceled this year. But even without music, he says bikers are still stoked for the rally.

WOODRUFF: People will come up to me and say, oh, God, thank you, Woody, for having this thing. Thank you for not canceling. We are looking so forward to this. We've been looking forward to it. And so it's just congratulations and thank you, appreciation for having someplace to go and, you know, to quote one of these guys, you know, to just escape that communist cesspool back home, right?

LINDA CHAPLIN: Everything about the rally just flies in the face of protecting the health of our community.

STRUBINGER: Linda Chaplin is a 60-year Sturgis resident who left town for the duration of the rally. The former schoolteacher says she's worried attendees will bring the virus to town. She also has other concerns.

CHAPLIN: We have school getting ready to start, you know, a couple weeks after the rally. And it just feels extremely irresponsible for us to host the rally.

STRUBINGER: Chaplin is one of 60% of Sturgis residents that a poll said wanted the city to postpone this year's rally. City officials didn't try to cancel it. Since no one owns the event, they speculated riders would show up anyways. And South Dakota has no mask requirement or restrictions on public gatherings. The city did cancel all city-sponsored events, like opening ceremonies and contests. City spokesperson Christina Steele says public safety is their No. 1 concern.

CHRISTINA STEELE: We just want to make sure we had in place enough fire police, emergency responders, made sure the hospital was OK and on board with being prepared in case we had an influx of ill people.

STRUBINGER: The regional hospital will offer 1,300 coronavirus tests for residents, and the city put up hand sanitizer stations in the downtown core where bikers congregate. As for the Reeds from Minnesota, they're leaving before the official rally gets underway.

D REED: We love it out here. We wanted to come, but yet we're still being safe.

STRUBINGER: Once they get back to Shakopee, they say they're going to quarantine for 14 days.

For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in Sturgis, S.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC DEVIL SONG, "OH DEVIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.