STURGIS, S.D. — What 2020 wrought is draped across Sturgis' downtown days ahead of motorcycles returning.

A T-shirt hangs in a shop showing former President Donald Trump as "The Terminator," in sunglasses, saying, "I'll be back."

Bikers, tourists and locals linger on doorsteps and city streets.

But nowhere is there a vaccination clinic. Or a mask. Even as South Dakota averages more than 50 new COVID-19 cases a day, a significant number in a small state.

And that scares at least one local physician.

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"Even before the rally's coming, we're seeing fairly significant increases," said Dr. Douglas Lehmann, of the Community Health Center of the Black Hills. "Based on that trajectory, a week from now, I'll predict we'll be in the substantial community spread."

STURGIS 2020 AND COVID-19:

The doctor of the federally qualified community health clinic said he noted with no happy irony a T-shirt that sang the praises of the red-white-and-blue: red for firefighters, blue for police, and white for health care professionals.

"You know how you can support us? Go get your blanking vaccine," Lehmann said. "And maybe mask up in the grocery store."

But the public health dilemma that marked this motorcycle rally a year ago — for unmasked bikers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at bars, attending Smash Mouth concerts, and traveling hundreds of miles across state lines when public health experts pleaded with people to stay away from large gatherings — is still here, whether it is acknowledged or not.

"Any event or setting that is conducive to spreading the virus will continue to allow more variants to develop, undermining the gains we have already made with this virus," said Doug Schultz, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health.

What to expect

Vendors set up for the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Monday, July 26. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
Vendors set up for the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Monday, July 26. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

The 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally hopes to be bigger than ever, with estimates of 750,000 attendees, nearly doubling the size of the state over the 10 days of the rally (though most rallygoers only come for a few days and then turn their bikes around).

On Main Street Sturgis a week-and-a-half out from the rally's start, a woman organizing merchandise was overheard, "Can you believe it's starting so early?"

Travelers from around the country mingle. Outside the Dungeon Bar, a man in a leather vest talks on the cellphone about his trip last week to Monterey. A banner is up blazing a new logo, meant to attract younger riders to the event.

At a longtime egg roll stand on the east end, the owner — who points at International Food Concessions when asked his name — declined to say whether anyone he knew got sick last year, saying, "We're private. We're not the city."

"Last year it was good," he said, with a shrug. "Same this year. Maybe bigger."

The area's largest health care provider, Monument Health, says vaccines are available at hospital and clinic locations throughout the Hills but not through any mobile clinics. The city of Sturgis has made available at-home test kits to residents.

Last month, Gov. Kristi Noem told the Associated Press she'd reached a "saturation level" in encouraging vaccinations. A spokesman for the state's public health agency said they're teaming up with Monument to provide those free antigen tests.

"The Department of Health continues its statewide messaging campaign, highlighting the importance of vaccination, testing and mitigation factors for residents and visitors," said Daniel Bucheli.

The pandemic rocked South Dakota worse than almost any other state, with the small, mostly rural population notching the third-highest infection rate in the nation.

"It should never have gotten that bad," Lehmann said. "That speaks to the impairment and lack of basic public health measures."

And other, perennial dangers are even heightened this year.

The Black Hills kicked off an early fire season in late March, wracking the American West with a fire lapping at Rapid City's doorstep. And already, bikers have died on South Dakota roads.

T-shirts -- from the vulgar to the bold to the politically caustic -- hang from a shop in downtown Sturgis, South Dakota ahead of the 81st motorcycle rally on Monday, July 26, 2021 (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
T-shirts -- from the vulgar to the bold to the politically caustic -- hang from a shop in downtown Sturgis, South Dakota ahead of the 81st motorcycle rally on Monday, July 26, 2021 (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

And then there are those T-shirts. "Black Bikes Matter" festoons one proprietor's wall. A "Hidin' with Biden" is displayed on another. But at a quieter shop in downtown Sturgis, a clerk reads a mystery novel.

"We don't do any of those," said Karen Ladybug, shaking her head. "We carry the official T-shirt of the rally."

She flips a page of a Jean-Christophe Valtat novel.

"James Patterson is a rookie compared to him," she explains. "The difference is he investigates a new mystery always somewhere else in the world."

The shop next door carries a T-shirt depicting a nurse with the phrase, "My job is to help your a**, not kiss it."

And within a couple of weeks' time, some Sturgis-goers will be back home to that front-line medical worker, as she patiently listens to them explain where they think they picked up the virus.