▲ An estimated 460,000 bikers attended this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

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Must the Show Go On?

Motorcycle Rallies In The Time Of COVID

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every facet of life in the United States and worldwide. And the motorcycling community has not escaped.

Major motorcycle rallies have struggled to stage their events while complying fully with state and local health guidelines and laws and maintaining an acceptable level of social responsibility.

The rallies—Daytona Bike Week, Americade, AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days, Sturgis, Laconia, Biketoberfest and others—are an integral part of their state and local economies, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors who book hotel rooms and campsites, buy local food and beverages and fuel up at local stations.

Daytona Bike Week was cut short in March, at the onset of the pandemic. Americade was canceled. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally went on as planned. Laconia Motorcycle Week was rescheduled. Biketoberfest organizers are optimistic.

The AMA attended Daytona Bike Week, but vacated the booth at Daytona International Speedway when city officials shut down the rally.

The Daytona Beach event, along with Sturgis and Laconia, is part of the 2020 AMA National Gypsy Tour schedule, as was AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days. AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days was scheduled for July 10-12 in Lexington, Ohio, but was postponed due to state and local restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. No new dates have been set.

Here is a look at the way rally organizers and government officials handled this crisis.

Daytona Bike Week

Organizers of Daytona Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla., cut the March event short when the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic was realized.

Kate Holcomb, director of communications at the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, outlined the sequence of events.

“A pandemic was declared on March 11. This had a negative effect on travel across the county and the world,” Holcomb said. “Our destination was no exception. The city of Daytona Beach decided, during the event, to end vendor permits issued within the city limits two days earlier than planned.” That move resulted in an exodus of vendors and attendees.

The rally draws 500,000 or more people to Volusia and surrounding counties each year and is sandwiched between NASCAR events at Daytona International Speedway and the influx of college students for Spring Break.

The economic impact of shortening the rally is unknown.

“While all of this had an impact [on the overall rally revenue], it is difficult to separate out just the last two days of Daytona Bike Week from the overall period,” Holcomb said.


Each year since 1983, touring motorcyclists have flocked to the annual Americade Motorcycle Rally in Lake George, N.Y. The event, billed as “the world’s largest multi-brand motorcycle touring rally,” attracts an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 attendees per year.

For a while, New York was the nation’s hotspot for COVID-19 cases, and strict guidelines were instituted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, including 14-day quarantines for people traveling to New York from certain other states.

This year’s Americade event was originally scheduled for early June, but was moved to late July in light of the growing virus concerns. Then, it was called off.

“When we rescheduled Americade to July, I knew that it was a bit of a long shot,” said Americade organizer Christian Dutcher. “Attempting to create a safe event in the face of a global pandemic was a big challenge and would require numerous changes to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.”

Despite many hours spent trying to organize and stage a safe event, Dutcher canceled the 2020 event.

“Out of concern for our customers and our community and out of respect for the work so many are doing to protect our health, canceling Americade 2020 is the right step,” Dutcher said. “We deeply regret having to disappoint our fans and the communities that have always supported us. We hope they will understand [our decision].”

The financial ramifications of the cancellation on the Lake George region are significant.

“Various reports over the years have placed the economic impact of Americade between $20 million and $46 million,” said Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce & CVB Executive Director Gina Mintzer. “This six-day rally is one of our region’s signature events, and the benefit to the local economy reaches nearly every sector, as attendees stay multiple nights and spend their money on gasoline, entertainment, retail, dining and more.”

T Shirt Design from the 2020 Sturgis Rally

▲ Sturgis T-shirt designs reflected national headlines.
Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem opened the 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally with the Twitter greeting, “Sturgis 2020 kicks off today. Welcome to South Dakota!”

The state’s highest elected official continued with the optimistic assessment, “We’ve been ‘Back to Normal’ for over three months, and South Dakota is in a good spot.”

But not everyone was excited when business leaders in Sturgis insisted on moving forward with the rally, which typically draws 500,000 to 750,000 visitors in early August.

The city of Sturgis conducted a survey that revealed more than 60 percent of the town’s residents who responded to the question wanted to postpone the rally.

Despite the mixed public sentiment, the Sturgis City Council voted 8-1 to forge ahead with the rally. The rally may have been a foregone conclusion anyway, because no individual or organization technically “owns” the event, so there was no way to prevent attendance.

Recent Sturgis rallies have provided an infusion of nearly $800 million each year into South Dakota’s economy. The city of Sturgis garners more than $1 million annually from the event.

Modifications stipulated for the 2020 rally were numerous. There would be no events in the fairgrounds, the photo towers would be closed, and there would be no opening ceremony. The city also outlined plans for mass COVID-19 testing after the event.

There was no mask mandate at the rally.

With an estimated attendance of 460,000 this year, the event may end up being the largest mass gathering in the country since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Major vendors were divided on their decisions to attend. Indian Motorcycles set up shop at the rally, with some coronavirus modifications. Harley-Davidson’s corporate travel restrictions prevented the marque from having an official presence at Sturgis.

The concert lineup, a major draw at Sturgis, also was a fluid and challenging situation for venues like the legendary Buffalo Chip, as well as the popular Full Throttle Saloon. National acts were booked, canceled and replaced on an almost daily basis leading up to the rally.
Major news outlets, including network and cable stations and newspapers and magazines, covered the Sturgis crowd, noting that few attendees wore masks and many were openly skeptical about the seriousness of the pandemic.

During one concert, the lead singer for the band Smash Mouth shouted a profane condemnation of the COVID-19 restrictions, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Perhaps more than any other 2020 event, the Sturgis rally will be scrutinized during the coming months, as health officials, attendees and the public at large begin to receive and analyze the results of COVID-19 testing conducted.

Laconia Motorcycle Week

Before the Sturgis rally ended, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu issued an order requiring anyone in public areas to wear protective masks.

And Sununu acknowledged that the sight of all those motorcyclists in South Dakota packed into bars and concert venues with no face coverings prompted his new restrictions.

So, vendors and attendees for the 97th Progressive Laconia Motorcycle Week will be required to wear masks.

Event organizers had pushed back the rally from mid-June to late August.

In a unanimous July 13 vote, the Laconia Town Council decided to allow the rally, but reserved the right to cancel if Department of Public Health data reflected a worsening of the COVID-19 infection risk.

The “World’s Oldest Motorcycle Rally” implemented significant changes to cope with the coronavirus threat. All events would be city-hosted or sponsored. No commercial vendor permits would be issued. And no crowded beer tents would be permitted.

Laconia Bike Week Deputy Director Jennifer Anderson said that, to help assuage community concerns, “The emphasis on this year’s Laconia Motorcycle Week will be on safety.”


The other major Daytona Beach motorcycle rally, Biketoberfest, remained on the calendar at press time for this story.

City officials and event organizers held hope that the rally can be staged, as scheduled on Oct. 15-18.

“While we hope that the time will be right for people to travel in October 2020, there’s still a lot we don’t know yet,” Holcomb said. “Safety is paramount.

“It’s a difficult decision for the city of Daytona Beach to make now on whether to issue special use permits for an event held in October. We are reaching out to the merchants involved to learn how they would like to proceed with their permit applications.”

Biketoberfest does not draw the massive attendance numbers of Daytona Bike Week, but the 100,000-plus visitors bring a fall boon to the area economy.

▲ An estimated 460,000 bikers attended this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images