The somnambulent, non-response of most Republican state governors to the worst public health crisis to strike the United States in over a century has been a textbook case in magical thinking, arrogance, and willful stupidity. South Dakota’s first-term governor, Kristi Noem, is no exception.
From the Washington Post:
As governors across the country fell into line in recent weeks, South Dakota’s top elected leader stood firm: There would be no statewide order to stay home.
Such edicts to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Kristi L. Noem said disparagingly, reflected a “herd mentality.” It was up to individuals — not government — to decide whether “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.”
Citing her “commonsense conservative values,” Noem in the same April 2 speech suggested that South Dakotans should stop watching the national news. As reported in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Noem sought to draw a distinction between clean South Dakotans and those dirty New Yorkers.
What South Dakotans should do, she said is stay the course, adjust as needed and stop watching the national news.
"It's so important not to turn on the news and look at NYC and think that that's what Lemmon, South Dakota is going to face in a month," Noem said. "It's absolutely not true."
Of course, the thinly-veiled racism in the “New Yorkers” refrain has been echoed by other Republican governors resisting any efforts to pay more than casual lip service to the pandemic, most likely because they believe, as Donald Trump and Fox News assured them, that it would all soon “go away.”
As it turns out, Noem was partly right. It wasn’t Lemmon, South Dakota that has turned into New York City. It’s Sioux Falls, the state’s most populous city, that is now facing one of the largest COVID-19 clusters in the country.
But now South Dakota is home to one of the largest single coronavirus clusters anywhere in the United States, with more than 300 workers at a giant pork-processing plant falling ill. With the case numbers continuing to spike, the company was forced to announce the indefinite closure of the facility Sunday, threatening the U.S. food supply.
The Smithfield plant, which supplies 5% of the pork consumed in the U.S., employs 3700 people, all of whom have been free to roam about the state and congregate for the last month without any restrictions, thanks to Noem’s “commonsense conservative values.” Employees there were forced to work in close proximity with no distancing measures in place, according to employees interviewed for the Post. The same employees now say that people throughout the city are becoming infected.
Understandably, local communities and medical professionals within the state are now demanding some type of statewide shutdown to combat the spread of the virus. But Noem won’t back down—as she stated in her April 2 brief, South Dakotans are just better people than those that live in big cities on the coast. They have more “personal responsibility.”
"The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety," Noem said. "They are the ones that are entrusted with expansive freedoms...[.]
"Our sense of personal responsibility, our resiliency and our already sparse population density put us in a great position..[.]"
Her only official action thus far in response to the Smithfield cluster has been to issue a shelter-in-place order in two counties for those over 65 and those with an underlying health condition. Everyone else in the state, it seems, is free to demonstrate their “personal responsibility” and “resiliency.” Instead, the governor used her press briefing this week to brag about the “exciting” potential of...hydroxychloroquine, which she heard about from Donald Trump. That and her wonderful conversations with Trump’s son-in-law.
[S]he used a media briefing Monday to announce trials of a drug that President Trump has repeatedly touted as a potential breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
“It’s an exciting day,” she boasted, repeatedly citing her conversations with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Noem’s own advisors have told her that as many as 70% of South Dakotans are anticipated to be infected with COVID-19 by the time the pandemic peaks in that state. She acknowledged then that the state doesn’t have nearly enough facilities to hospitalize those who will need it, “but we have a plan to get there.”
Mayors of other cities within the state, such as Rapid City, have attempted to enforce stay-at-home restrictions, but say that without state-wide support and guidance their efforts are generating resentment from businesses who feel they are being unfairly restricted.
As the Post article notes, Noem’s non-response in essence mirrors that of other governors of rural states—all of them Republicans, who believe that their citizens’ so-called “homespun” characters and broad traveling distances between homes and businesses will protect them. But whether that belief is rooted in genuine conviction, political expediency or just willful ignorance, it isn’t going to make any difference to the virus.