Hundreds expected at South Dakota auto races despite virus

A pair of South Dakota speedways are forging ahead with plans to hold two auto races expected to draw hundreds of fans this weekend, even as the state's governor warns against attending them.

Gov. Kristi Noem said she won't be taking any action to shut down the events planned for Saturday and Sunday nights even though she thinks they are a bad idea and could lead to the spread of the coronavirus. The two race tracks, just over the border from Iowa, decided to sell limited tickets to give race fans a taste of "normalcy" after weeks of social distancing and canceled sporting events.

South Dakota's Republican governor said the crowds at the races would violate her guidance not to gather in groups of more than 10, but she has not said why she won't stop the races from proceeding. Health experts have said eliminating group gatherings are crucial to curbing the spread of the coronavirus, which can be transmitted by people who do not exhibit symptoms.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

As Noem touts her constraint in allowing businesses to operate during a global pandemic, the races push the limits of her hands-off approach. 

Promoters of the races said they are taking steps to reduce the chances that the event will become a hotbed of virus transmission, including keeping the crowds well below capacity, screening people's temperatures and making concessions cashless. The Saturday race at Park Jefferson International Speedway has sold out of the 700 tickets it offered to a track that usually holds 4,000. The Sunday event at New Raceway Park in Jefferson is offering 500 tickets, less than one-third of its capacity of 1,800. Organizers said they would offer refunds to anyone with second thoughts about going.

Dennis Moore, who is organizing the Sunday race, said his message is clear: If you are concerned about coronavirus infections, don't come. But he feels the economy needs to reopen.

"This country's going to be on its butt if we don't open this up," he said.

The South Dakota races stand in contrast with NASCAR, where discussions are underway to resume racing — but without fans in the stands.

The coronavirus outbreak has infected millions worldwide and killed about 180,000, including more than 45,000 in the U.S., according to a tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University from official government figures. South Dakota has reported 1,858 confirmed cases and nine deaths, though the number of infections is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

Both tracks are in Jefferson in Union County, which has confirmed seven cases. Jefferson is a city of about 550 people that's about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Sioux City, Iowa.

Jerry Miller, the state's attorney for Union County, said holding the races was "risky and irresponsible." He said the county has tried to stop them from going forward, but authorization would have to come from the state.

Moore said people from as far away as Texas are planning to fly in to attend Sunday's race. Race crews have also lined up to join, with many on a waiting list, he said.