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Michael Swartz / Jun. 12, 2020

Kristi Noem: Standing Alone for Her People

South Dakota's governor resisted calls from the New York-based media to shut down.

One key aspect of the whole Wuhan coronavirus crisis has been the reaction of federal and state governments. On the federal side, the last few months have made household names out of Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, two of the doctors placed on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. As for the states, we all know how much the media has secretly longed for an iron-fisted ruler like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer while cheering the efforts of New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom. On the other hand, Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Georgia’s Brian Kemp drew condemnation for opening their states up too soon for the liking of media-anointed experts who seemed to believe our economic lockdown should extend until a vaccine is available — or, at the very least, until President Donald Trump is defeated in November.

One governor who decided not to order a lockdown for her state was South Dakota’s Kristi Noem. “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety,” Noem quaintly insisted. It’s one of the beauties of our federalist system that South Dakota’s circumstances and mindset need not be like those of urban-dominated New York, California, and Michigan, and her governor is being noticed by those who admire her trust in the state’s people.

South Dakota’s response can serve as a template for states with mostly rural populations. Its one viral hotspot — the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls — had more than 800 cases and two fatalities by itself, but that essential facility was the exception in a state where the people took it upon themselves to be cautious and practice social distancing. (Despite what readers may think, the state did close schools and ask those over 65 to refrain from going out. “We do follow Centers for Disease Control guidance,” said Noem.)

As the number of states resisting a complete lockdown dwindled to a precious few in April, Noem stood strong. “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,” she said. “If a leader will take too much power in a time of crisis, that is how we lose our country.” One wonders how many residents of New York and Michigan wistfully agree with Noem.

In appreciation for her lonely but trusting stance, citizens in the state capital of Pierre held a mobile parade past her house in late April. And while naysayers keep waiting — indeed, hoping — for South Dakota to blow up with an outbreak, the state ranks in the bottom third in per capita deaths. Meanwhile, the Mount Rushmore State remains in the top 10 in lowest unemployment rate, checking in at just over 10% in April compared to 13.3% for the nation as a whole.

Noem’s state is succeeding as best it can despite a significant headwind affecting its economy. The agricultural sector was already feeling a pinch before the coronavirus hit, but supply-chain issues and low prices for cattle have really put a damper on South Dakota’s ranching industry. Yet the people appreciate Governor Noem’s leadership, and they didn’t resist when they were advised what to do: “As soon as the president said, ‘We all need you to stay home for 15 days,’ people in South Dakota did,” said Noem. “We didn’t tell them they had to. We didn’t close any businesses. But people here just said, ‘Our president’s asking us to stay home — we’re going to stay at home.’ And so we still saw a decline of people out and about doing things. Personal responsibility.”

“Personal responsibility.” It’s a refreshing approach to governance — one quite fitting for a state whose motto is, “Under God the people rule.” And while it’s way, way too early to think about the 2024 election, something tells us that Kristi Noem, by way of her resolute leadership, may have put herself on that map.

(Visit our comprehensive CV19 Pandemic response and recovery page to review our timeline of government and political actions related to the pandemic, and see our related pages.

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