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Research group says Sturgis motorcycle rally was COVID superspreader, but mass BLM protests were not

The research group that said massive BLM protests do not result in an increase in COVID-19 cases was the same one that said that the motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, SD, was a "superspreading event."
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

It turns out that the research group that said massive BLM protests do not result in an increase in COVID-19 cases was the same one that said that the annual motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, SD, was a "superspreading event." It strains credulity to believe that both things can be true.

The IZA Institute of Labor Economics released a paper this month on the irresponsibility of the motorcycle clubs going along with their recent gathering in Sturgis, as they do every year, despite national, coronavirus-inspired lockdown measures. The discussion paper series issuance is called "The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19."

The claims led NBC to say that the motorcycle rally spawned 250,000 new COVID-19 cases. This just wasn't true. It was reported in the AP that "More than 250,000 people are expected," but not that this would be an increased case count.

Yet it was only a few months ago, back in June, that they issued a paper as part of the same series called "Black Lives Matter Protests, Social Distancing, and COVID-19."

The way these two papers frame mass gatherings of individuals in the pandemic era is drastically different, and may reveal an inherent research bias.

The paper on Sturgis blames those attendees for contracting and spreading the virus. The paper states that "large in-person gatherings without social distancing and with individuals who have traveled outside the local area" pose a great risk for being superspreaders of the virus.

As motorcycle enthusiasts gathered over several days in mid-August, the IZA noted that the attendees were not socially distanced, had travelled, and partook in a minimal amount of face mask wearing.

Using cell phone data, just as IZA used when conducting the BLM protest survey, it was determined that as the town filled with revelers, local residents also began to spend less time at home, locking down. As a result of this, IZA says, COVID-19 cases increased by six or seven cases per 1,000 in the county. This created a 7-12.5 percent increase "7.0 to 12.5 percent increase in COVID-19 cases relative to counties that did not contribute inflows."

IZA praised the counties that had stricter coronavirus-inspired restrictions on individuals and their movements, and makes the claim that the "Sturgis Motorcycle Rally generated public health costs of approximately $12.2 billion."

In stark contrast, IZA's paper on the BLM protests, authored by three of the same researchers who undertook the Sturgis analysis, alleges that these massive gatherings of non-socially distanced people did not create a superspreading event. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The authors of the study note that the protests were an essential function in bringing  "a new wave of attention to the issue of inequality within criminal justice."

While at the time there were some experts who noted their concern over the large gatherings in the time of COVID-19, IZA points out that, of the 315 protests that were used as a basis for the study, other people who were not protesting stayed home more than they would have had it not been for the protests. This IZA sees as a mitigating factor.

Protests rocked cities, non-protestors stayed home, so the whole thing balanced out, basically. "Event-study analyses provide strong evidence that net stay-at-home behavior increased following protest onset, consistent with the hypothesis that non-protesters’ behavior was substantially affected by urban protests."

People weren't staying home because of city-imposed curfews, but because they were concerned about violence, IZA reports, going on to say that there was no spike in cases as a result of the protests. This despite the fact that many elected leaders who implemented contact-tracing refused to allow contact-tracers to ask if people had been partaking in protest activity.

"We conclude," the study posits, "that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived."

Moreover, they take the same tack that so many experts have in claiming that racism itself is a public health crisis that trump's any concerns over coronavirus. They write that "public health experts have made the argument that the goals of the protests may be worth the costs."

They do not note, however, the costs accrued to individuals, communities, and their collective mental health by refusing to allow people the ability to socialize and come together as they see fit.

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Libby Emmons
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