'I believe in our freedoms': the governor who resists lockdown and stresses American liberty

South Dakota’s Kristi Noem refuses to impose a stay-at-home order, citing a deeply held ideology – one supported by many in the midwest

To much of the rest of the country, South Dakota’s governor looks awfully like an ideologue sacrificing lives on the anvil of Trumpology.

Kristi Noem has been denounced for refusing to impose a stay-at-home order, even after her state saw a large flare-up of Covid-19 cases when the virus struck hundreds of people working at a slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls.

Noem is an unabashed supporter of the president, and her stated commitment not to let the coronavirus pandemic intrude on American liberties coincided with Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on other governors for maintaining lockdowns, and the orchestrated streets protests dotted around the country.

But South Dakota’s governor is not out of step with large parts of her own state, or even other areas of the midwest, where support for the severity of the shutdown is fraying amid mass unemployment, businesses going to the wall, and a sense that the pandemic is more of a New York City problem – even if Noem’s own position is underpinned by a deeply held ideology.

“I took an oath when I was in Congress, obviously, to uphold the constitution of the United States,” she told Fox News. “I believe in our freedoms and liberties. What I’ve seen across the country is so many people give up their liberties for just a little bit of security, and they don’t have to do that.”

Kristi Noem with Donald Trump at the White House in December.
Kristi Noem with Donald Trump at the White House in December. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

South Dakota was thrown into the spotlight by the outbreak at the slaughterhouse. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the state went past 1,600 at the weekend, but 85% were concentrated on Minnehaha county, home to the now closed Smithfield meat factory. The plant alone accounts for 777 known infections and one of seven Covid-19 deaths in the state.

The Republican mayor of Sioux Falls, Paul TenHaken, immediately called on Noem to strengthen existing orders that have closed schools, recreational areas and discouraged large gatherings such as in churches, and told people to stay at home. TenHaken is backed by the mayor of Rapid City, the state’s second largest town. But Noem has refused, noting that the Smithfield plant would still have been open as an essential business.

Professor John Schaff, a political scientist at Northern State University, said Noem’s position was mostly driven by an ideological commitment supported by a majority of South Dakotans.

“There is a governing ideology that says that people are free to make their own choices, and if people want to engage in some behaviours that in other parts of the country would be restricted, they’re not restricted here,” said Schaff.

“I think the governor is seeing that for most of the state, we’re not in any kind of crisis mode, so why give an order to the entire state, when it’s really this one very specific geographic spot? In that sense I think the governor is probably where most South Dakotans are, in that they don’t want to be dictated to that they have to follow highly restrictive rules when the virus is yet to make a major impact on most people’s lives.”

The Smithfields meat plant.
The Smithfields meat plant. Photograph: Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Schaff lives in Aberdeen, the state’s third largest city with a population of just 26,000 people. “You have to drive 100 miles to get to another town of 25,000 people. Our nearest neighbour is five miles away. That’s how remote South Dakota is, and we have entire counties which have zero cases of coronavirus. I think that is really what’s driving the governor,” he said.

TenHaken has faced his own attacks for attempts, now withdrawn, to impose a stay-at-home order in Sioux Falls.

“I am called everything from Hitler to Mayor Mussolini, to everything in between,” he said. “It pains me to have to bring things like this forward – I don’t want to do that. But we’re continuing to have to balance this fluid, very delicate, delicate situation.”

One farmer threatened to let loose his pigs on the streets of Sioux Falls.

While Minnehaha county grapples with more infections, a third of South Dakota’s 66 counties have no cases at all. “I think there’s an increasing questioning of how serious the virus is and how deadly it is,” said Michael Card, a political scientist at the University of South Dakota. “In our state, we’ve cut in half the predictions of what we figure will be the peak hospitalisations in mid-June.”

Commuters wait at the bus stop in Sioux Falls.
Commuters wait at the bus stop in Sioux Falls. Photograph: Dan Brouillette/Bloomberg via Getty Images

That’s reflective of broader questioning in areas of the midwest. Away from the fury of the organised protests in some cities, a quieter scepticism is infusing parts of the region that have not yet been badly hit by infections and deaths, but which are bearing a severe economic cost including huge numbers of people made unemployed. There is not much open questioning of the science, but states such as Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska can count lives lost to Covid-19 in the dozens while unemployment has surged into the millions.

In South Dakota, its two biggest industries, agriculture and tourism, have taken a severe hit and do not look likely to recover for months.

Noem’s stand also conveniently coincides with her unflinching support of Trump, which will not do her any political damage in South Dakota, where the president remains popular.

But Schaff said Noem will ultimately be judged on how badly South Dakota is hit by the virus. “How smart the governor looks will probably depend on the total number of cases,” he said. “The mere fact that we do not have the major outbreak in most of South Dakota doesn’t mean that it can’t happen very quickly.”


Chris McGreal

The GuardianTramp

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