SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem lashed out at critics of her relatively hands-off approach to restricting businesses and movement in the state due to the coronavirus Wednesday, April 1, insisting the state is already doing what it needs to do to slow the spread of the virus.
She compared her approach to "draconian" measures taken in China and elsewhere, said those who want a one-size-fits-all approach are falling prey to a "herd mentality, not leadership" and she encouraged South Dakotans to ignore the crises they're seeing on their TVs from pandemic-stricken areas in the U.S. and elsewhere.
"South Dakota is not New York City," she said. "Our sense of personal responsibility, our resiliency and our already sparse population density put us in a great position to manage the spread of this virus without needing to resort to some of the measures we've seen in some of these major cities, coastal cities and other countries."
Noem has faced pressure in recent weeks for her decision to only issue guidelines to the state's residents and businesses, with a focus on personal responsibility. The guidelines encouraged social distancing and good hygiene, asked hospitals to defer elective surgeries, for businesses to implement telework for their employees and for restaurants to move to a take-out and delivery model.
Meanwhile, 30 states have issued some version of a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order.
The South Dakota State Medical Association penned a letter to Noem last week calling on her to close non-essential businesses and suspend elective surgeries in the state, and numerous city mayors have said they're looking to Noem for guidance on what restrictions should be put in place.
While Noem declared a state of emergency in South Dakota on March 13, such a move does little to directly address the ways coronavirus spreads. Noem has pointedly refrained from directing anyone in the state, most notably city and county leaders, from taking stricter actions, although she has said they are free to make their own decisions and they have the powers they need without further action from her.
Modeling by state officials shows her decisions, and actions by South Dakota to social distance, are working, she said Wednesday. While some early models used by the state had indicated that the virus would peak in late May or early June, she said recent test results and other factors have moved that date into July and even August.
"We have been able to bend the curve a great deal," she said.
The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus has doubled since Friday, to 129. On Wednesday the state reported its second coronavirus-caused death, identified by a relative as Mari Hofer, a 51-year-old teacher from Huron.
The lack of stricter orders from Noem and the political cover those would provide has complicated the decision-making process for many of the state's local leaders as they weigh restricting business and movement in their communities. While cities do have police powers, there appears to be a deep hesitation to use those powers without clear authorization from state leaders. And county governments lack many of those same powers.
The South Dakota Legislature this week rejected a measure supported by the South Dakota Municipal League, Senate Bill 191, that would have clarified and expanded the powers available to local governments, including cities and counties, on a temporary basis.
Meanwhile, local leaders have been instituting a patchwork of ordinances, with some ordering residents to stay home, others limiting business and some taking more cautious steps, largely to avoid hurting local businesses but also on philosophical grounds.
Paul TenHaken, mayor of Sioux Falls, testified in favor of the legislation and was visibly frustrated on Tuesday after it failed. He said several mayors, lacking state leadership, have been talking to him for guidance on their own local ordinances.
Unlike Noem's calls for South Dakotans to ignore the national news, TenHaken said he considers it valuable to watch what is working and not working elsewhere in the nation and world before the pandemic hits home.
"This is our Super Bowl, right now," he said. "That's why the lack of direction, and the lack of action on these bills is frustrating, because the critical time is now."
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