Wyoming Towns Prepare For Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Visitors

Aug 7, 2020

Credit Catherine Wheeler

Outside of the Harley-Davidson dealership in Gillette, it's actually pretty quiet. Employees are moving around some new demo bikes and there are a couple of shoppers inside. But that's unusual for this time of year.

"People come into our store and say are you always this busy? And I'm like, 'Sundance is a city of 1,100 people, so no, we're not usually this busy,'" said Maria Ruiz, owner of the Harley-Davidson shops in both Gillette and Sundance. "We take a lot of time and thought to prepare to be good hosts and the tourists are fun people to have."

In Sturgis, bikers are involved in a big celebration with live music and other events, such as riding around the Black Hills and Northeast Wyoming. Towns like Sundance and Hulett also host events to draw bikers in.

Crook County Emergency Management Coordinator Ed Robinson said one of the biggest is the Ham 'N Jam in Hulett. It's hosted by a local bar and has been going on for more than 20 years.

"It's a celebration that Hulett puts on where they serve food and they have concerts and live music. Vendors are set up. It's kind of like a community rally celebration they do in Hulett," he said.

In a typical year, it can draw 20,000 people into town, Robinson said.

And this year, bigger crowds were expected.

"We were all set with dealing with the eventuality of having potentially 800,000 people here for the 80th celebration of Sturgis. Then of course COVID hit," Robinson said.

For many of the groups involved across state and federal lines, the pandemic threw everyone for a loop.

"There was a great deal of concern. We actually started about 4 months ago discussing it when it first hit. And we pretty well determined as a council that they were going to come anyway. Unless you shut down the borders, you aren't gonna stop them," said Hulett Mayor Ted Parsons.

So with that in mind, a few changes were made.

Maria Ruiz, who owns the Harley Davidson dealerships in Gillette and Sundance, said preparing that way makes sense.

"You can't 100 percent control people. So we're doing the best job that we can to stay in a controlled environment and a healthy environment. And that's all we can do," Ruiz said.

Because of COVID-19, public health was even more important in the planning phase. Melanie Wilmer, public health response coordinator and COVID-19 public information officer for Crook and Weston counties, said both counties have low numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and none are attributed to community spread.

"We are concerned people are going to be bringing it with them because we've seen license plates from all over the country come through our county. And we are concerned there's going to be some asymptomatic people who come to visit and who don't know they are sick and would never intentionally spread anything," she said.

Wilmer said they are advocating for visitors to follow state guidelines, like wearing a mask when social distancing isn't an option and frequent handwashing.

"Our towns that are going to be the most busy and hit the hardest by the tourists on Wyoming Wednesday, they have made plans, they've put out handwashing stations, they're going to be promoting wearing face coverings in the booths that set up and sanitation supplies there and spraying down the booths. Those kinds of measures," she said.

Wilmer's heard many people are tired of the restrictions, and visitors on a trip like the Sturgis Rally may see it as a chance to take a break from the rules. But that's not the case.

"People are scared, they're tired of orders, they're tired of dealing with covid, and they want to get away from it. I honestly don't blame them. They're coming to a place where they think they can let their hair down and have a good time, but we still have to be cautious. The virus has not gone away," she said.

Maria Ruiz, the Harley-Davidson dealer, said with the changes to some of the major events at the rally because of COVID-19, it might be a good opportunity for bikers to experience the area more.

"The other side of the rally is touring the Hills, touring Wyoming, going to Devils Tower, going up to Newcastle and we have beautiful beautiful country here. And people from other parts of the world haven't seen wide open spaces with antelope running through it. So it's just a wonderful place to ride your motorcycle," Ruiz said.

And Wyoming officials are hoping many of the visitors follow all the health precautions doing so.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at ccwheel11@uwyo.edu.