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UPDATED: Early counts of arrests, citations, traffic at Sturgis Rally in pandemic show numbers near normal

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This year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally might be bigger than expected during the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on the drug and traffic offenses logged by law enforcement and the vehicle count by the South Dakota Department of Transportation in the rally’s first days.

Of course, it’s early.

But, in Sturgis and in the larger Rapid City District, the number of arrests for misdemeanor drug offenses and total citations issued on Saturday and Sunday were higher than last year, as were the total citations issued and the number of injury traffic crashes, according to a news release Monday from Tony Mangan, spokesman for the Highway Patrol.

For years, the patrol has issued reports of such law enforcement activity during the rally.

Meanwhile, in the first three days of the rally, the vehicle count done, rather meticulously, by the DOT, showed traffic was down only 3.8% from the same period during the 2019 rally.

City officials and others connected to the rally have estimated perhaps 250,000 people would show up for the 10-day event that opened Friday, Aug. 7 and ends Aug. 16. It’s the 80th anniversary rally.

The normal attendance the past 20 years has averaged around 500,000, including 2019 and 2018.

Because of the COVID-19, many Sturgis residents opposed hosting the Rally, but city leaders went ahead with it on a limited basis, with most large events in the city canceled. In part, city leaders said that even if they canceled the entire event, thousands still would show up and the results could be chaotic.

Of course, too, the economic impact of the rally, estimated to be as much as $800 million annually in recent years, weighed heavily on the decision to host the rally this year in the town of 7,000. The 10 days are the major part of annual business for many of the businesses in and around Sturgis.

Gov. Kristi Noem promoted the Sturgis Rally on Friday, comparing it with her July 3 appearance with President Donald Trump and 7,500 people at Mount Rushmore and the Professional Bull Riders event July 10-12 in Sioux Falls at which she rode a horse and carried the American flag.

On Friday, Noem tweeted: “#Sturgis2020 kicks off today. Welcome to South Dakota! Our state had the Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration. We had the first national indoor sporting event with fans thanks to @PBR. We’ve been “Back to Normal” for over 3 months, and South Dakota is in a good spot.”

Anecdotal reports from Friday via city leaders and others indicated that the numbers showing up the first day appeared to rival recent years’ first days.

For what it’s worth, the first official statistics don’t make a case for a crowd much smaller than normal.

According to the Highway Patrol, in the Sturgis and Rapid City District, from 6 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 8 to 6 a.m., Monday, Aug. 10, there were 41 DUI arrests made, compared with 51 for the same 48 hours in 2019. There were 79 misdemeanor drug arrests, compared with 64 last year; 39 felony drug arrest compared with 45 in 2019.

Total citations for the 48 hours were 429, up from 400 a year ago.

Law officers seized three vehicles for drug-possession offenses, compared with one a year ago; and $766 in cash was seized, compared with none a year ago.

According to Mangan, 30 of the DUI arrests happened in Sturgis; 11 of them in the Rapid City District; 29 of the felony drug arrests happened in Sturgis; 10 were in the Rapid City District.

There were 20 traffic crashes causing injury, compared to 12 in 2019.

Meanwhile, the DOT, as it has been doing for a couple decades and more, began tolling each vehicle entering Sturgis, covering all the roads coming in.

The DOT count can’t account for how many people are in or on each vehicle, of course, nor how many times the same vehicle might enter Sturgis in a day. But it’s a count that’s been done the same way for a long time and therefore is a good way to compare year-to-year numbers. It also generally tracks well with the city of Sturgis’ separate estimate of attendance compiled about six weeks after the event. The city’s headcount is complicated, using several factors, including weighing the garbage collected during the rally and measuring the drinking water, waste water and electricity used, as well as toting up the sales tax revenues and actually counting heads in the big photo taken the same day each year on the Main Street.

According to numbers compiled by Jeff Brosz of the DOT and released Monday for the first three days of the rally: on Friday, Aug.7, 49,835 vehicles entered Sturgis, down 4.3% from% from the first Friday last year; on Saturday, Aug. 8, the count was 54,804, down 8% from 2019; on Sunday, Aug. 9, it was 56,149, up 1.1% from vehicles entering in 2019 that day.

The three-day total is 160,788 vehicles entering Sturgis, down 3.8% from 167,222 during the same period in 2019.

There were no fatal crashes the first weekend of the rally in the region in and around Sturgis, but according to Mangan there were several critical injuries:

On Sunday, at 9:32 a.m., a 66-year-old man driving a 2003 Harley Davidson FLH north on Vanocker Canyon Road five miles south of Sturgis failed to negotiate a right-hand curve. His bike hit the guard rail and the driver, who was wearing a helmet, sustained life-threatening injuries.

A 70-year-old man received life-threatening injuries when he swerved to miss a deer Saturday afternoon four miles south of Deadwood and crashed the 2010 Harley Davidson. He was not wearing a helmet. His passenger, a 63-year-old woman was wearing a helmet and was thrown from the bike, suffering serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

On Saturday morning, a 64-year-old man suffered life-threatening injuries when he had to swerve the 2014 Harley Davidson while he was passing and went into the ditch 3 miles north of Nemo. He was not wearing a helmet and was thrown from his bike. Charges are pending, according to Mangan.

Two motorcycles hit each other on Saturday, seriously injuring both drivers in the Black Hills west of Rapid City. A 24-year-old man driving a 2001 Yamaha FZS10 north on U.S. Highway 385 two miles north of the intersection with Highway 44 about 2 p.m., Aug. 8, crossed the center line and hit a southbound 2005 Harley Davidson driven by a 64-year-old woman. Both drivers were wearing helmets; both sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries. Charges are pending against the man.

There were 16 other motorcycle crashes that involved injuries, some serious, including two about 5 p.m., Saturday, on Interstate 90 — one in Rapid City, one near Spearfish — that were caused in part by the wet pavement from a thunderstorm, according to Mangan.

On Sunday at 3:50 p.m., at Exit 46 westbound on I-90 at Piedmont, a 2012 Toyota Camry stopped at the stop sign but didn’t yield to a 2009 Honda motorcycle eastbound on Elk Creek Road, which collided with the Toyota. The 35-year-old woman driving the Honda was wearing a helmet and sustained minor injuries. The 21-year-old woman driving the car was wearing a seat belt and not injured and will be charged, according to Mangan.

There were no traffic deaths during that 48 hours in the Sturgis and Rapid City District. In 2019 there were no fatal crashes in that same 48-hour period, according to Mangan.

To watch livestreaming of Sturgis’ main drag: https://www.sturgis-sd.gov/webcams-in-and-around-sturgis

Night in Sturgis Rally 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cF9pARTfDg.

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