STURGIS, S.D. (AP) — The Black Hills of South Dakota roared with bikes and crowds Friday because the Sturgis Motorbike Rally began amid an increase in COVID-19 instances within the state.

Organizers count on at the least 700,000 folks in the course of the 10-day occasion. On Thursday, the eve of the official opening, downtown Sturgis was clogged with Harleys, rallygoers packed shoulder-to-shoulder at bars and rock reveals, and masks had been nowhere in sight.

The rally is a rendezvous for bikers, who join over their love for bikes. For some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime aim to make it to Sturgis; others faithfully make the pilgrimage 12 months after 12 months.

“It is simply good to see everyone out and about, with the ability to simply be buddies with everyone,” mentioned Pam Williamson, a rallygoer who got here from Kansas.

Public well being consultants — and a few locals — fear the rally will once more play host to coronavirus infections. Solely about 46% of adults who dwell within the county that hosts Sturgis are absolutely vaccinated, in accordance with the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention, in contrast with 60.6% nationwide. Virus infections are on the rise in South Dakota after a gradual decline via the spring and early summer time. The Division of Well being reported a 68% soar in virus infections final week, with the extremely contagious Delta variant spurring a bigger share of these infections.

Final 12 months’s rally reworked Sturgis, often a quiet group of underneath 7,000 residents, right into a journey hub corresponding to a significant U.S. metropolis. One evaluation of nameless cellphone knowledge discovered that nicely over half of counties within the nation had been visited by somebody who attended Sturgis. Lots of of rallygoers had been contaminated, and a crew of researchers from the Facilities for Illness Management concluded the occasion ended up wanting like a “superspreader occasion.”

This 12 months, the rally is predicted to be even greater. Town was holding a gap ceremony Friday for the 81st iteration of the occasion — one thing it skipped final 12 months in an try to tamp down the crowds.

The most important step metropolis officers took this 12 months to mitigate the chance of infections was permitting rallygoers to drink on public property; the concept is to unfold the crowds into the open air. Bars and meals stalls that stretch for blocks additionally provide open-air seating.

“We’re out within the extensive open,” mentioned Williamson, who additionally attended final 12 months’s gathering. “If you wish to put on a masks, that’s what you are promoting. In case you don’t, that’s what you are promoting.”

If final 12 months’s rally was marked by defiance of coronavirus precautions, with T-shirts on sale that learn, “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis,” this 12 months the pandemic appeared to hardly be an afterthought amid a crowd that embraces the dangers and way of life of the open highway.

“A whole lot of that, I don’t fear an excessive amount of about,” mentioned J.J. Vilella, who mentioned he has not obtained a COVID-19 vaccine. “If it occurs, it occurs.”

The rally is named a spot the place folks let unfastened, strolling the streets in minimal apparel and physique portray. On Thursday, one lady walked via downtown with a goat on a leash. A person sat on a bench with a rifle as passersby smiled and nodded.

Well being consultants say massive gatherings present fertile floor to start out a wave of infections, however rallygoers mentioned they got here to flee the troubles and restrictions of their lives again residence.

“I’m going to dwell free,” mentioned Mike Nowitzke, who made his first trek to the rally from Illinois to have a good time his fiftieth birthday.