A group of economists drawing on cell phone data to track movements and Covid-19 case data estimate that the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota in August could be responsible for 250,000 new Covid-19 cases, a startling figure that provides an early assessment of the effects of the large outdoor gathering, though the figure has not yet been corroborated by epidemiologists or officials.
The annual 10-day motorcycle rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota, which began on August 7 and ran until August 16, was attended by nearly 500,000 people.
The study’s authors claim they used anonymized cell phone data to show that foot traffic at restaurants and bars, entertainment venues, hotels and campgrounds rose considerably in and around the Sturgis area.
The study also looked at the rate of new Covid-19 cases in the county that hosted the event, as well as counties that sent the most attendees to the event, showing an increase in both over the weeks following the event.
The IZA study explains that the rally included many of the “worst-case scenarios for super-spreading,” due to its length (10 days) and other conditions, such limited social distancing and a relative lack of face coverings being worn.
According to Andrew Friedson, associate professor of Economics at the University of Colorado, over 250,000 Covid-19 cases reported nationwide between August 2 and September 2 are due to the rally, which would account for approximately 19% of cases in the U.S. during this timeframe.
The paper also attempted to determine the economic impact of the rally and claims that “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 Kniesner and Sullivan (2020)”
“This is enough to have paid each of the estimated 462,182 rally attendees $26,553.64 not to attend,” the study claims, although it adds that “this is by no means an accurate accounting of the true externality cost of the event, as it counts those who attended and were infected as part of the externality when their costs are likely internalized.”
“Now we’re all here together tonight. And we’re being human once again. F*ck that Covid sh*t.” – Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell, 2020 Sturgis Concert
Recent independent data, not affiliated with the IZA study, confirm that coronavirus cases are rising sharply in the Midwest and South. According to a Reuters report published over the weekend, South Dakota has experienced the biggest increase, on a percentage basis, in the country over the past two weeks at 126%, reporting over 3,700 new cases. Health officials have confirmed at least some of the rise in cases is due to the 10-day event held in South Dakota. Infections are also rising rapidly in Iowa, which has seen more than 13,500 new cases in the past two weeks, and North Dakota, with 3,600 new cases in the same period. NPR reported last week that at least 12 states have turned up cases linked to the rally. A Minnesota man in his 60s who went to the rally died last this week, said Kris Ehresmann, head of infectious disease for the Minnesota Department of Health.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Sturgis rally and the rising Covid cases in the area, officials did not cancel the 2020 South Dakota State Fair, which reported an attendance of 205,000 people last year. The fair ran from last Thursday through Labor Day. According to USA Today, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been a strong advocate of these large events, and has “discouraged schools from requiring masks, instead promoting hand-washing as the best way to prevent infections, and railed against an ‘elite class of so-called experts’ whose opinions impact individuals’ liberties.”