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A Supporter And Opponent Discuss The COVID-19 Outbreak Linked To A Motorcycle Rally

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The giant August motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., has now been linked to about 300 coronavirus infections across the country and at least one death. But those numbers aren't deterring the state from holding more big events. South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Lee Strubinger has more.

LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Sturgis resident Kristin Meunier would've preferred the rally didn't happen this year. Meunier grew up around it and says this year, it was different. She wishes there was more respect for the community.

KRISTIN MEUNIER: It was more a display of inalienable rights to not wear a mask, I guess.

STRUBINGER: Meunier says that made her feel uncomfortable being in town.

MEUNIER: And not feel like I have to cower in my house because the masses are out, unmasked.

STRUBINGER: Officials estimate 460,000 descended upon the town of about 7,000 this year, almost double the number anticipated. That's despite public health officials' concerns about the rally further spreading the coronavirus. Now at least 12 states are reporting cases tied to the rally.

ROSS LAMPHERE: I certainly do not want to downplay the severity of this COVID crisis that we're going through.

STRUBINGER: That's Ross Lamphere. He owns a biker campground outside the city of Sturgis. He says he's old enough to remember when polio was going around, which he said did deadly things to a number of people he knew.

LAMPHERE: But we didn't stop the world because of it, and I don't know that you can.

STRUBINGER: Lamphere says his campground followed state and CDC guidelines. He says he wanted staff and attendees to feel safe. It's been over 14 days since the rally ended. He says no COVID cases are tied to his campground, and no employees got sick.

LAMPHERE: I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves. Yeah, there's been a spike in cases in the area, but when you can only attribute 2- or 300 back to the rally, that just is not a very big percentage.

STRUBINGER: It's about one-half of 1% of attendees. But public health experts say the number of cases linked to the event will probably never be known, in part because that would require people volunteering that they attended the rally.

Kris Ehresmann is the head of infectious disease for the neighboring Minnesota Department of Health. She says their state has seen 50 coronavirus infections in rallygoers.

KRIS EHRESMANN: During a pandemic, one person's actions and decisions don't just affect themselves. They affect those around them at work, at home and everywhere else they go.

STRUBINGER: Earlier this week, South Dakota's Republican Governor Kristi Noem said her state's recent increase in cases is due to kids going back to school and college.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTI NOEM: Although in South Dakota, we've been back to normal largely for almost four months now. So I think it's a testimony to - you can continue to live and slow down the spread of the virus.

STRUBINGER: But the daily number of new COVID cases in South Dakota has increased fivefold in four months. That's not keeping the state, which has no mask mandate, from allowing more large-scale events. The state fair is currently underway. In a typical year, more than 200,000 people attend. Officials aren't sure how many to expect this year.

For NPR News, I'm Lee Strubinger in Rapid City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.