How many will show up for the 80th, and how will it all go down? We talk to the Buffalo Chip’s Rod Woodruff to get his take…
Words by Kali Kotoski
Photos courtesy of the Buffalo Chip
While Sturgis City officials are waiting until June 15 to reach a verdict on the fate of the 80th anniversary Sturgis motorcycle rally, the iconic Buffalo Chip is moving full steam ahead with its plans and is taking extra safety precautions to mitigate concerns over the pandemic that has canceled or postponed countless events across the nation.
With all 50 states slowly easing restrictions on businesses and social distancing guidelines, one thing is certain: Sturgis, or at least the Buffalo Chip, which falls outside of city control, is gearing up for a party. Albeit, likely not the million-plus attendees projected before the contagion brought the country to a grinding, self-imposed halt.
“Sturgis ‘canceling’ the rally within the City of Sturgis would only mean it would not sell vendor permits and would not make Main Street a motorcycle-only street,” the Chip’s Rod Woodruff told Thunder Press. “The Buffalo Chip, not being within the City of Sturgis, would not be directly impacted by the City’s actions. The Buffalo Chip’s events will proceed as scheduled.”
Still, Woodruff is closely following the guidelines of Republican Governor Kristi Noem, who has fielded criticism from federal health officials for not imposing harsh lockdowns. She has instead taken an approach of giving the citizens of the state the scientific data available on the Covid-19 virus, while allowing people to take personal responsibility for their decisions, Woodruff explained.
As of May 20, South Dakota has 1,108 active cases of the virus, a total of 4,177 confirmed positive cases with 3,023 recoveries and 46 deaths, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. South Dakota has roughly a population of 885,000, and the spread of the virus has largely been confined to counties in the southeastern part of the state where large per capita outbreaks have been linked to meatpacking facilities.
Sturgis is located in Meade county, which has reported zero deaths and five confirmed cases, while Rapid City’s Pennington county has reported 74 confirmed cases and two deaths.
At the Buffalo Chip, business is back to relatively normal, with no entertainment cancellations to date. Rather, Woodruff has seen shored-up confirmations in recent weeks for stunt and bike shows, as well as professional boxing executives scheduled to fly out over Memorial Day weekend for a site view in preparation for a first-ever professional boxing match at the rally scheduled for August 8.
“When everyone went hysterical about this virus, it seemed like people wanted to hold off and keep their powder dry until they knew they could shoot at something,” Woodruff said, adding that seven bike shows remain committed, with companies like Roland Sands wanting to up their event to two or more hooligan races.
For safety measures, Woodruff said they have purchased large backpack disinfectant sprayers to routinely clean showers and bathrooms. Also, no-contact digital thermometers will be used to check for fevers among the staff. The Chip will have its staff likely wearing masks, given the current guidelines, and attendees are encouraged to bring their own but it is not mandatory.
“It will be visible that more people will be keeping things clean,” Woodruff said. “Then, if people are in the amphitheater and you are within six feet of someone, you should be wearing a mask out of courtesy for everyone else.”
While social distancing guidelines are in flux, distancing will be encouraged but not demanded, Woodruff said, adding that he was continually coordinating with state health officials.
“We want to make sure nobody around is sick. Although, some may be sick of the government running their lives,” he said. “We are going to expect everybody to be cooperative, but we can’t keep people apart. Boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, are we really supposed to keep those people apart? I really think that is not our business.”
There is little doubt that there will be a downturn in attendance, Woodruff said, but it can also make for a more intimate event while bringing back the party-around-a-bonfire feel.
“The rally was heading to have a huge party, probably more than double the attendance we had last year. My opinion is that nothing like that will happen. But on the plus side, you can’t find better riding than here, with paved roads going through the pines and rock formations, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and all that stuff,” Woodruff said. “What I can predict is that roads are not going be crowded this year, so better riding and just rocking and rolling on very comfortable and beautiful roads.”
The City sent out a mailer earlier in May asking residents if the rally should or should not be cancelled. The deadline to respond to the poll is May 26 and Woodruff said it has obviously become a contentious and heated topic.
The City on May 14 posted how deep the financial ramifications could be if the rally is cancelled. It estimates that $1.7 million in revenue could be lost, which would incur a 5 percent hike in property taxes, 7 percent hike in sanitation utility fees, cancelling of community events, City staff furloughs and greatly reducing charitable contributions to make up for the shortfall.
The City has pledged that it would tap into its general fund reserves to help make up for the shortfall, using up to 35 percent of the $2.3 million the City has on hand, or approximately $740,000, according to local news reports.
A 2014 resident survey indicated 15 percent of Sturgis’ residents rented their homes, 6 percent rented their yard and 22 percent worked a rally job, with 43 percent of the city’s residents taking part in the rally. “This income is generally 5 to 15 percent of their household annual income,” the city said.
Despite the Buffalo Chip not being wedded to the City, there would undoubtedly be some knock-on effects to the Chip regardless of the City’s decision. But just as the rally has weathered downturns in the past, most notably the 2008 financial crisis, Woodruff remains optimistic that Sturgis is the place to be this year.
“This whole rally is just a bunch of friends and when we started off we only had a few friends,” Woodruff said. “So, if we end up with a few thousand people compared to gobs of people, we will still have a damn good time! I am looking forward to some of that old feeling coming back and renewing friendships and talking about how things are going.”