DEADWOOD, S.D.—While Gov. Kristi Noem frolicked with bikers at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally amid a nationwide surge of the coronavirus on Monday, Dr. Kevin Weiland watched and worried from afar.
Weiland, a Rapid City internist, told The Daily Beast he went to Florida to “escape the Rally”—despite a raging outbreak in the Sunshine State. The doc’s concern: that the massive South Dakota gathering—organizers say more than 700,000 people were expected to visit the Black Hills, setting an all-time record—could be dangerous, as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads across the nation.
“Safe as I am in a gated community, I have strong feelings as to what our governor is doing,” Weiland told The Daily Beast of his new digs down South.
Weiland went on to claim that “the very first South Dakota resident to die was my patient,” arguing that like ex-President Trump, Noem was a coronavirus rogue and denier who “should be exposed.”
Weiland declined to identify the patient, citing confidentiality concerns, but said the individual was over 60—consistent with official statements at the time—and a “great” person.
The loss of that patient, and five others, to the coronavirus, is still painful to Weiland, 59.
Last year’s rally—which Noem also endorsed—was widely regarded as a superspreader event. But speaking out over the dangers posed by the rally is far from Weiland’s first political statement.
In 2010, he considered challenging Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democrat, in a primary after she voted against the Affordable Care Act. Weiland decided against it, but he and other South Dakota liberals offered only tepid support, and the incumbent was defeated that fall by a formerly obscure state legislator: Noem.
Weiland’s brother Rick was a top aide to former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, who rose to serve as majority leader. Rick Weiland lost a race for Congress to U.S. Sen. John Thune, in 1996, and was defeated by Herseth Sandlin in a 2002 congressional primary. In 2014, he was defeated by former Gov. Mike Rounds in a Senate race.
Rick Weiland has, like his brother, turned his attention to health care, leading Dakotans for Health, which seeks to pass a Medicaid expansion ballot measure in 2022.
While Dr. Kevin Weiland left the state to avoid the Rally, Noem embraced it.
On Monday, she rode her horse Ice Man to an outdoor press conference. The announcer signaled her arrival by saying, “If you love freedom, if you love South Dakota …”
Noem, carrying an American flag, rode the horse onto the stage.
“Welcome to South Dakota,” she said to hordes of bikers. “Welcome to freedom.”
Later, she took part in a motorcycle tour of the Black Hills dubbed The Legends Ride, although the “celebrities” who mounted up outside The RallyFranklin, a Deadwood casino, were legends mostly in the minds of a small cadre of fans.
She was scheduled to be joined by professional racers of V-Twin baggers from the Bagger Racing League, former Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Earl Dotson, “Horny Mike” from the History show Counting Cars, motorbike artist Darren McKeag, musician and actor Sean McNabb, Ironman world champion Carlos Moleda, and artist David Uhl.
Uhl’s painting titled “True Grit,” which features Noem on her horse Ice Man during Custer State Park’s annual Buffalo Roundup, was auctioned off on Monday. Proceeds will go to Treasured Lives, a nonprofit agency dedicated to assisting victims of human trafficking
The painting depicts the governor on her horse, with motorcycles in the distance. The bikes weren’t really at the annual Buffalo Roundup, but he added them in, and bikers at Monday’s outdoor press conference roared in approval when told that.
“She had the courage and the grit to stand up for our freedom,” Uhl told the crowd. Only a few masks were evident.
The Legends Ride was set to end at the Buffalo Chip, the largest campground in the Sturgis area and the site of numerous rally concerts over the years. Politicians, including Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, have long taken the stage to the roars of bikers and their motorcycles.
Most did not do so during a raging pandemic.
“To have Governor Noem joining the Legends Ride and helping us raise money for worthy causes is a true honor,” Rod Woodruff, president of the Sturgis Buffalo Chip, said in a statement.
Woodruff, a lean, friendly Republican lawyer and real-estate developer called “Woody,” founded The Chip, as it is known, in 1981. He has hosted rock stars including Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, and Kid Rock, who was slated to play the rally again this year.
The big-name concerts, blended with an appreciation for motorcycles and the majesty of the Black Hills, turned the Sturgis rally into a massive gathering over the last three decades. From its humble roots in 1938, when nine bikers performed tricks for 200 spectators in a one-day event, it has become a huge affair that nearly doubles the population of South Dakota for a week.
But with the growth has come controversy, even before the pandemic, with some locals upset over the rowdy and bawdy behavior on display.
It’s still evident, with a topless woman riding on the back of a bike on Interstate 90 on Sunday evening, and a heavyset, balding biker with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Fuck Biden” strolling through downtown Spearfish, a nearby town, before mounting his iron steed.
Also looming: concerns about the fatality count, both in the short and medium term. As The Daily Beast previously reported, death is a key part of the rally ethos.
So far, five people have died in motorcycle crashes in the region in the last week.
A 74-year-old man injured in an Aug. 2 crash died Friday. Three other bikers were killed in separate crashes that day, including a 58-year-old woman and two men, one 58, the other 60.
On Saturday, after the rally officially began a day earlier, a 36-year-old woman died in a motorcycle crash. No names were released in any of the fatal crashes.
Only the Saturday death goes on the official Sturgis Rally Tally, which runs from 6 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 7, until 6 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 15. But Department of Public Safety spokesman Tony Mangan said all the deaths are included in statewide totals.
The deadly side of the rally is obscured by the parties, celebrations, and concerts. Those are the events that politicians attend—with controversy.
South Dakota Democratic Party Vice Chair Nikki Gronli told The Daily Beast Noem was putting her own pleasure and desire for publicity ahead of the safety needs of the state.
“The lack of concern for not only South Dakotans but citizens all across this country is tragic. But it isn’t shocking,” Gronli said. “We’ve witnessed a lack of leadership in South Dakota throughout the pandemic. The callous lack of concern for children and individuals across this country who cannot be vaccinated leaves me in a state of disbelief. It’s truly heartless. The lack of honesty when acknowledging the danger of this variant shows a total disregard for life by the governor.”
Last year, too, Noem resisted calls for her to try to cancel the event.
After it ended, some health-care analysts said it was a disaster and spread the coronavirus across the country. A Bonn, Germany, research institute suggested there may be 266,000 cases linked to the Rally, with a cost of $12.2 billion.
Noem dismissed that claim.
“This report isn’t science; it’s fiction. Under the guise of academic research, this report is nothing short of an attack on those who exercised their personal freedom to attend Sturgis,” she said in a press release. “Predictably, some in the media breathlessly report on this non-peer-reviewed model, built on incredibly faulty assumptions that do not reflect the actual facts and data here in South Dakota.”
Only one death, a man in his 60s with a history of health problems, was definitely linked to the 2020 Rally, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded the event had “many characteristics of a superspreading event,” and it was tied to hundreds of cases nationwide.
Noem responded by calling such findings an “absolute lie” spread by the liberal national media.
This year, Noem tweeted out support for the rally before it officially opened, although hordes of bikers were already in the Black Hills. She said life was all about risks, and bikers understood that better than most people.
Weiland, the doctor who skipped town, begged to differ.
“Having seen six of my own patients die of COVID and dealing with the long-haulers syndrome, I am pissed,” he told The Daily Beast.