The Sturgis motorcycle rally has come and gone, but public health officials continue to hold their breath.
The rally attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country to South Dakota two weeks ago, where they partied, compared hogs, camped, attended concerts (Smash Mouth! Quiet Riot! and... these guys), all in a broad state of masklessness.
It takes a while for COVID-19 symptoms to appear, if they appear at all, so we're still learning what kind of impact this gathering will have on public health.
Based on yet another round of frighteningly far-reaching cellphone datamining by private companies, it doesn't look good.
Location data firm X-Mode Social created this apocalyptic-looking map using software built into apps that users downloaded onto their cellphones (read those terms and conditions, y’all.) By filtering out residents, X-Mode was able to figure out which cellphone users ventured to Sturgis that week, and where they came from.
Why Sturgis was a really terrible idea:— Decoherence (@DecoherenceWave) August 22, 2020
This visualization was created using anonymized cell phone location data records from the rally, showing where those devices were active leading up to, during, and after the event.
The rally has already been linked to multiple Covid cases. pic.twitter.com/0RG3M9XJPJ
That cancerous-looking orange node down in the southeast corner of our state? That’s the Twin Cities.
“The Sturgis motorcycle rally… is shaping up to be one of the largest public outbreaks since the start of the pandemic,” an explanatory video released by a partnering company says, over generic buttrock playing in the background. You can view that in its entirety here.
As one of the largest public gatherings since the start of COVID-19, #Sturgis2020 has drawn plenty of media attention. So what does the data say about the real footprint the event may have on our country? We took a look with the help of @xmodesocial and @SafeGraph. Check it out: pic.twitter.com/jALZqRNRBS— Tectonix GEO (@TectonixGEO) August 17, 2020
There’s supposed to be more data on the way, including where these attendees went after the rally, and what businesses were most affected.
The very existence of the results raises eyebrows about the ethics of tracking people this way. Companies took a similar approach during the very first days of social distancing to grade states based on how closely their residents were following advice to stay home. Like those companies, X-Mode insists its data is completely anonymous.
More immediately troubling, some of these feared COVID-19 crows appear to be coming home to roost. Minnesota is one of seven states reporting coronavirus cases for people who'd gone to the rally, according to Forbes, which cites 40 cases in South Dakota itself through Monday.
The Department of the Health reported Minnesota's first Sturgis cases on Friday, announcing 15 people who'd gone had since tested positive. Of those, 14 had been to multiple campgrounds or watering holes, while one had been working a temporary job at a bar. State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann warned we should expect more cases on the horizon.
As of Monday, the number had risen to 27, per MinnPost, which also says those people returned to 24 separate households. The one Sturgis attendee who was treated in a hospital has been released.
Asked to liken Sturgis cases to those of people who'd attended public protests in recent months, Ehresmann said the latter group had shown a positivity rate of about 1.8 percent (or 243 people, out of more than 13,000 tested). Because there's been no "coordinated effort to test Sturgis attendees," as there was with protesters, the two groups are not easy to compare directly.