STURGIS, S.D. — The annual rendezvous of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts to the Black Hills for a late-summer party topped last year's pandemic-hobbled attendance, but will fall short of the 1 million predicted by some Sturgis boosters prior to this year's rally, which ended this past weekend.
While vendors remarked on early attendees prior to the 10-day rally's start, and a popular campground's proprietor casually remarked on a potential 1 million rallygoers while chatting with Gov. Kristi Noem, the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally likely drew closer to half that, according to a mid-week tally from the Department of Transportation.
As of a four-day vehicle count, over 250,000 vehicles had passed over a DOT traffic count — below the 359,000 hit on the 75th anniversary in 2015, when the rally drew three-quarters of a million visitors.
Still, the Rally, nevertheless, rebounded from a below-average year in 2020, which forged ahead regardless anxieties from public health officials who proved largely correct in predicting the rally to further fuel a COVID-19 pandemic in the region and Upper Midwest.
This year's iteration, coming amidst a nationwide surge in the delta variant, brought similar, if muted concerns from public health officials. A city spokeswoman for Sturgis noted Friday, Aug. 13, that nearly 200 persons had requested COVID-19 tests through the city.
"Even before the rally's coming, we're seeing fairly significant increases," Dr. Douglas Lehman, of the Community Health Center of the Black Hills, told Forum News Service last month.
By the end of last week, 150 people a day were testing positively for COVID-19, compared with just one-fifth those numbers at August's beginning, according to the South Dakota Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard.
But the otherwise strong performance of a rally often bemoaned as catering to older and older riders suggests staying power for the annual event that draws visitors from across the nation to western South Dakota.
The event also drew criminal activity. On Friday, in federal court in Rapid City, federal prosecutors charged three individuals — Clayton Paulson, James Hanapel, and Anthony Kemp — with use of the internet to solicit sex from an underage person. The sting operation, completed using MeetMe and Whisper platforms, was undertaken by South Dakota Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce.
All three individuals have pleaded not guilty.
The rally also happened at the end of a combustible season in South Dakota's marijuana laws. While Noem sued to block implementation of the recreational marijuana amendment passed by voters in November, the medical marijuana law did become effective on July 1. According to rally totals provided by the Department of Public Safety, the number of marijuana arrests was greatly reduced.
However, at least one county said they were operating business-as-usual with respect to marijuana criminality.
"The PCSO does not expect to see any significant changes in the way it handles cannabis cases as cannabis has not been decriminalized in Rapid City or Pennington County," said Helene Duhamel, spokeswoman for the Pennington County Sheriff's Department.
The rally saw four fatalities in 2021, including motorcycle crashes in or near Sturgis city limits on Saturday. Last week, the Department of Public Safety's Rally Report noted that a driver on Aug. 10 collided with a big horn sheep inside Deadwood.
Overall, the numbers of injury accidents and citations were up compared to 2020. The City of Sturgis also reported an increase in temporary vending licenses compared to 2019, which an official called the "last normal year."