People across the country, and even the world, shook their heads at the sheer irresponsibility of the Sturgis Motorcycle Festival in South Dakota. Last year, despite the pandemic, festival organizers hosted the event, bringing people from across the country to a rally that was a super-diffuser of COVID. They did the same this year, apparently not having learned their lesson. The organizers point out that the event is outside – because of the motorcycles. Some sites even encourage masks, although there is no vaccine mandate. But we are not fooled by these weak excuses. Events like this cause people to socialize, indoors, share food and drink, kiss and dance, and spread not only great camaraderie, but the virus as well. So far this year cases have increased by 352% after the festival, although we never know all of the cases which are on the rise as participants spread across the country. Thank goodness at Duke we would never do something so incredibly irresponsible! Or would we do it?
On September 25, Duke plans to host a campus-wide graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 (who are not subject to this year’s immunization mandate) and their families (as well). Initially, the event had to be inside! Common sense finally prevailed just enough to move the main events outside. Just like Sturgis. Of course we always encourage families who attend to travel here from all over the country and then to celebrate the graduation these students have been so unfairly denied. These celebrations, hugs, shared meals – and we know they’re going to happen, indeed we want to they’re happening – they’re on us. Let’s be clear, I understand the urge. The 2020 class was given a final year that no one wanted. They showed incredible resilience and courage to finish strong and move through what was then a very uncertain economy. I would like to be able to offer them and their families, young and old, a triumphant success. What I would do not Loving to give to them, or their unvaccinated children or their at-risk elders, or all the people they meet next as they move back across the country, is a very frightening disease.
My question is simple. How is Duke’s action more responsible for public health than the Sturgis Motorcycle Festival? You might respond that it is a personal choice for the participants. We do not find this argument convincing with the motorcycle festival as bringing together so many people from all over the country will inevitably cause the virus to spread both during the trips to and from and during the celebrations around the main event. . The people who will be affected are certainly not volunteers. Is Duke’s graduation reenactment any different? One of the main things that scandalizes us about Sturgis is that it was useless. This is not a class that needs to be taught or a work that needs to continue. Is Duke’s sense of well-being any different? Duke will undoubtedly do a better job of imposing security requirements To real events than the Sturgis festival, but everyone understands that the danger does not come only from the main events. Biking on the open road is probably safer than an open-air graduation ceremony. Let’s leave aside the general wisdom of outdoor events in North Carolina during hurricane season. Think of all those people coming from Florida and Louisiana and Texas and all the other states where cases have exploded. Or those from Boston, whose numbers are increasing, but better, coming to North Carolina, where the numbers are grim – then returning home. What could go wrong?
Today in Durham, which has a much better vaccination rate than the rest of North Carolina, cases are up 20% from the day before. Three large hospitals in the region have just held a collective press conference to announce a crisis in the availability of emergency beds. And in the middle of it all, Duke wants to throw a party? How are we better than the organizers of Sturgis? Simple answer. We are not. In fact, no doubt – given the scientific expertise available to this great university – we are more irresponsible. Yet we still have enough time to do the right thing. Think of all the innocent people – people who have nothing to do with the Class of 2020 – that we would put at risk by continuing our plans. I would respectfully ask President Price and the Deans of the schools who planned this event to cancel it immediately. Let us spread joy and learning rather than infection and fear. Let’s be better than Sturgis.
James Boyle is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School.