COVID-19 has not put the brakes on local bikers this summer.
While the virus behind the pandemic potentially creates a dilemma for motorcycle riders — with restaurants and bars being considered high-risk environments and some summer destinations posing as pandemic hotspots — local riders are unafraid of the risks.
Those riding locally note that motorcycles are typically longer than 6 feet, providing a natural barrier of social distancing for an activity already taking place outdoors.
“(COVID-19) is just like riding a motorcycle, you’re always nervous something could happen,” said Crystal Young, a Mitchell resident that purchased her first motorcycle this year. “There’s always a fear of some sort to be aware of. If you’ve got a horse that bucks, it’s not going to buck the entire time, eventually it’s going to settle down.”
On Saturday, 133 bikers congregated at The Depot for the Veterans for Veterans Poker Run, which included stops Ethan, Alexandria, Epiphany and Letcher before returning to Mitchell at the end of the day.
The annual poker run raised money for Mitchell-based Helping with Horsepower, which includes a therapeutic horseback riding program at Young’s Reclamation Ranch. The event has been running since 2005, benefiting a different veteran-related program each year and drew 62 registrations last year.
There were two other poker runs happening simultaneously a year ago, but the Veterans Poker Run averages around 80. With uncertain expectations due to COVID-19, this year’s event was one of the biggest to date.
This year’s event had a twist, creating two routes by assigning bikers a different path at random during registration in an attempt to alleviate crowded bars at each stop.
“It kind of overwhelms the bar you happen to go to and we got a lot of positive feedback,” said Jay Schreurs, board member for the Veterans for Veterans Poker Run. “We heard from other people that manage poker runs that they’re going to do the same thing. The places we stopped really liked it because they weren’t overwhelmed for 30 minutes and it’s kind of spread out throughout the day.”
In a little more than a month, fears will be put to the test with an event on a much grander scale as the 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally begins on Aug. 7. The rally drew more than 490,000 attendees a year ago, and on June 15, the city government opted to move forward with it despite concerns over ICU bed space in local hospitals.
Parts of the rally would have taken place regardless of the city's endorsement, but Sturgis leaders hope their involvement will ensure health and safety precautions.
Helping with Horsepower president and founder Laura Klock makes a regular pilgrimage to Sturgis, often in conjunction with Biker Belles, a program designed to empower women riders that donates a portion of the funds to her organization.
Klock does not have concerns about COVID-19 at the rally given the amount of time she plans to spend at the nine-day event and the company she chooses to spend that time with while in Sturgis.
“We aren’t staying the whole time and I know enough people that I feel safe,” Klock said. “At the same time, I don’t want to see something like that happen because it’s Sturgis.”
Admittedly, Young and Klock are more likely to stay within their groups at biker events rather than mingling with other attendees, but people are also more willing to ride motorcycles than they did earlier in the pandemic.
“People are hungry for that again — to see friends and ride again,” Klock said. “It’s a relatively safe way to do it. We’ve been really blessed to be in South Dakota. We don’t have the restrictions. We have the personal choice and people that are out here are making that choice.”