Does the Constitution Protect the Right to Expose Fellow Americans to the Deadly Corornavirus?

GELFAND’S WORLD--I’ve been to Sturgis. To the outsider or to our European readers, it’s Sturgis, South Dakota, USA, but to everyone who has ever seen a Harley Davidson motorcycle up close, it’s Sturgis. As in the Black Hills Rally that occurs at the beginning of August. 

Not a lot of people live in the town proper – not quite 7000 officially – but this time of year, the bikers come here to visit and to party and to buy souvenirs and even to hoist a brew or two. It’s been written up in the auto club magazine and in the New York Times and pretty much any other place that deals with travel and prints writerly amazement at primitive rites. 

So why are Sturgis and the Calvary Chapel Godspeak of Newbury Park getting so much publicity this week? It involves the resolve of the church and its hundreds of church goers, and it involves the resolve of a couple hundred thousand motorcyclists, to congregate during a time of epidemic illness. In each case, it involves people who don’t live under the same roof getting together, breathing on each other, singing in each others’ presence, and otherwise taking the chance of either giving or getting the Covid-19 infection. 

The argument that is generally being used goes like this. It’s based on the idea that there is a human right to gather together. To the church members, it’s a fundamental right that is repeated in the Constitution – the First Amendment to be specific – and to the motorcyclists, it’s an analogous argument that typically is declaimed using the word “freedom.” 

Any rational person has to agree that there is some semblance of truth to the argument that peoples’ freedoms are being curtailed by the new rules regarding the epidemic. I had to wear a surgical mask to go into a market this weekend, and I was required by store rules to maintain my distance from other shoppers. Anybody who would have wanted to walk up to other shoppers, shake hands, and give a religious or political speech would have been told to stop. That’s a loss of one’s immediate rights. 

Likewise, it may, at some level, be any adult’s right to risk illness by mingling with the public, just as it is any adult’s right to risk injury by trying to climb El Capitan in Yosemite. 

There is another argument mingled with the first, namely the claim that Covid-19 isn’t all that bad, so society should just leave it alone to take its natural course. We can get to that clearly absurd argument at some other time, but the argument based on freedom and the Constitution is worthy of consideration and, to my mind, extinction. Let’s consider. 

The New York Times quoted one of the Sturgis participants as saying, “If we get it, we chose to be here.” That seems to be a pretty good summary of what a lot of street protestors in Huntington Beach and church members and motorcyclists seem to be saying this year. For all except the church goers, who appear to be acting out of religious conviction, there is a certain bravado that seems to be saying, “I’ll take my own chances and if I get a sore throat and a little cough, I’m tough and I will deal with it.” 

And that, I would argue, is precisely half of what the argument should entail. 

Because the other half of the argument is that such actions will of necessity endanger many thousands of other people who had no part in the choice to party on the beach, drink elbow to elbow in Sturgis, or even to pray side by side in Los Angeles County. 

This principle is the essence of what we refer to as public health. It’s the notion that a few thousand or a few million people have to give up some little bit of freedom in order to prevent other millions of people from catching a potentially lethal illness. 

Over the centuries, societies have enforced quarantines, vaccination, and testing. 

The concept of quarantine goes back to the middle ages. It’s been enforceable in this country since we weren’t even a nation. Nowadays we try to treat quarantine as more of a social contribution by the sick and the exposed rather than home imprisonment, but generations of Supreme Court justices have upheld the right of the city and the county to enforce public health regulations. If an epidemic were to become so dangerous to our lives that we would have to enforce quarantines rigorously, there is no doubt that courts and governors would uphold that power. 

And that brings us to the fatally flawed reasoning and behavior of the governor of the state of South Dakota. 

Kristi Noem is overtly and openly a Trump supporter. She worked hard to get Trump to come to the July 4 celebration at Mt Rushmore and is said to have played along with Trump’s supposed desire to have his face added to Mt. Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. You’ve got to read the above-linked article to get the full brunt of her pandering to Trump’s narcissism. 

So it’s not so surprising that Noem would also pander to the Covid-denialism that has come from the Trump faction. And of course there is a lot of money that will come into the state this week from all those visitors. And apparently they are pretty good spenders. Every city wants to host a Super Bowl, but S. Dak has Sturgis. 

But there is the countervailing principle of public service and public safety. Typhoid Mary Noem is missing on both. The Sturgis rally should have been called off. The government is pretending that there isn’t anything they can do about it, but we all understand that this is nonsense. South Dakota is adding to the morbidity and ultimately to the American death toll from the Covid-19. 

Think of Sturgis as like that high school in Georgia except magnified a thousand fold. You know, the school that opened to a couple thousand students, got bad publicity for its crowded corridors, and within a few days had 9 positives. Now multiply the number of those students by more than a hundred and you have the estimated visitation in Sturgis over the next week. 

Out of those two hundred and fifty thousand visitors, it would be hard to imagine that fewer than a hundred or so will be carriers. Maybe twice or even ten times that many. And they will spread it to the strangers around them, because Sturgis in August is a party. A big party. So being there is going to be a risk to everybody who is there, except perhaps a few people who have already had the illness. 

Those people who catch the virus are willfully taking that chance. But that isn’t even the main point. 

They will travel back to their homes all across the United States, and when they get home to their families and friends and their jobs, they will pass the virus along. How many sick and dead will result from the Sturgis event alone? Who knows? Maybe fifty thousand? Twice that many? It depends on how many pick up a case of the virus at Sturgis, for one thing. We can guess that every one of those cases will pass it along to at least one or two others where they live, and the new round of sickness will be passed along to another set of people. 

That’s what infectious disease spreading in an exponentially upward curve acts like. 

Meanwhile, a distinct majority of the year-round residents of Sturgis oppose the rally. They have been told that they can’t do anything to stop it because a lot of the visitors use state owned campgrounds, and the state won’t forbid their use. 

We now have a new term in our English language. What is happening at Sturgis is referred to as a Super Spreader. It’s an event where lots of people come into close contact. Then,  anybody who actually has the virus will give it to one or more other people – in this kind of gathering, it’s usually more than one person, so exponential growth in the case load is enabled. In the case of Sturgis, S. Dak, it’s more like a series of super spreaders --  every bar and restaurant on every night for the next week, and maybe an equivalent number of super spreaders during the daytime. 

Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to Sturgis. It is right on interstate 90, and I was passing through, and it just happened by chance to be the same week as the 2001 rally. It was a fun place to visit and the beer was cold. But it wasn’t the plague year. 


Curiously, Sturgis is along the interstate that takes you to Portland, Oregon, although it’s a distance of 1225 miles (just under two thousand kilometers). Like I said in my previous article, you aren’t going to find a lot of active leftists in that run across the Dakotas, Montana, or Idaho. You may be able to track down some right wing survivalists and even survivalist communities, but that’s another matter. 

And one more 

Is college football gone for the coming season? It should have been obvious, but there’s been some foot dragging. But Bleacherreport says that the Big Ten and the Pac Twelve have made the decision: 

“The Big Ten and Pac-12 have reportedly decided to cancel their 2020 football seasons and are set to announce the news Tuesday, according to Dan Patrick.”


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])