Few elected officials may be doing more to openly play to the right wing’s antipathy to pandemic public-health restrictions than South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
Noem has refused to issue a statewide stay-at-home order during the health crisis even after an outbreak at a pork processing plant in her state became a virus flashpoint; embraced the president’s favored coronavirus drug; and raised her profile as a national outlier despite concerns in and outside of her state.
Laura Ingraham has spent time championing the Republican leader during an interview on her Fox News show, calling her “public enemy No. 1 for the liberal media.”
“I’d rather be with you over there in South Dakota. I’d rather be in your state,” Sean Hannity told Noem during a Monday appearance on his Fox News show.
“I just believe in our people,” the first-term governor said on the show. “They know and understand personal responsibility, so I didn’t mandate that any businesses closed.”
Noem, a former member of Congress, is one of only a handful of governors to completely avoid statewide stay-at-home orders and has become the most public face among the nation’s few Republican holdouts along the way.
Resisting statewide public-health measures has become a point of pride for a smattering of Republicans. Small rallies have appeared nationwide to challenge states to reopen during the pandemic, despite the coronavirus still taking a serious toll on the country. Trump has further stoked those sentiments in a call last week to “LIBERATE” three Democratic-led states with public-health restrictions.
But on the ground in South Dakota, Sandi Lundstrom said she wishes there had been “a little bit more guidance and leadership,” before the pandemic hit this point.
“It would have been nice to have a little bit more leadership from the governor,” the mayor of Canton said in an interview.
And Noem’s name-recognition growing nationally during the pandemic hasn’t gone unnoticed by the local leader, whose town is about 20 miles south of the COVID-19 hot spot Sioux Falls.
“She’s enjoying the attention, I think,” Lundstrom said.
Other mayors in the state contacted by The Daily Beast avoided directly answering questions about Noem’s job performance.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” said Tracy West, the mayor of nearby Lennox. “We’re right in the middle of the process of working with her. We continue to work toward the best that we can for the state. There’s some disagreements, but together we gotta work toward a solution. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
During the pandemic, according to The New York Times, a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota became one of the nation’s major virus flashpoints. The facility has since been closed, according to the company. The state’s health department reported 1,755 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, with an overwhelming majority coming from South Dakota’s Minnehaha County.
In a Fox News interview last week, Noem defended her stay-at-home resistance when it came to Smithfield, saying it is a “critical infrastructure business, so even if there had been a shelter-in-place order, it wouldn’t have helped the situation because this plant is a part of our nation’s food supply.”
And during her appearance on Ingraham’s show, the governor said “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,” Noem said. “If a leader will take too much power in a time of crisis, that is how we lose our country.”
At this point, both Democratic and Republican governors have largely moved to statewide stay-at-home orders of some sort. And even as some states begin to move toward re-opening, the threat of the virus spreading still looms.
Meryl Chertoff, executive director of Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, said Noem’s response is not a good response given the clusters of cases.
“This does not appear to be sound policy based on the guidance that has been coming from the CDC and from the president's own coronavirus task force,” Chertoff said.
Earlier this month, the South Dakota State Medical Association sent Noem a letter trying to persuade her to issue a shelter-in-place order, to no avail.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, the organization’s president, Robert Summerer, avoided directly criticizing Noem, saying “I’m not here to make a villain or a hero out of her.”
But Summerer appeared flummoxed by the amount of media attention directed toward the state with a population of 884,000 during the pandemic that has infected what is approaching a million Americans.
“It is curious that South Dakota is getting so much attention when we’re one of a few other states,” he said. “Somehow South Dakota’s become the media darling about that and I can’t explain that.”
Despite some concern back home, the South Dakota Republican’s approach is one that overlaps with what President Donald Trump preaches during White House coronavirus task force briefings day after day. Noem’s office downplayed the idea that the governor is trying to mimic the president on a statewide level.
“She’s doing what’s best for South Dakota, not necessarily focused on emulating the president,” Noem spokesman Ian Fury told The Daily Beast.
Noem has drawn further plaudits from the right through her resisting a stay-at-home order.
Charlie Kirk, the Turning Point USA founder, wrote a glowing Daily Caller column about Noem and promoted her on Twitter as someone who “has courageously looked the mob in the eye and said ‘No.’”
“In her restraint, South Dakota Gov. @KristiNoem has more guts than all the squishy ‘stay-at-home' GOP governors combined,” The Daily Caller’s Scott Morefield tweeted last week.
For his part, Trump has avoided direct rebukes of Republican governors skipping stay-at-home orders, including those in South Dakota, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Instead, Trump has taken to disparaging some Democratic governors during the pandemic who have ordered greater public-health restrictions, and spent Monday’s briefing criticizing Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has been one of the more hands-on governors during the crisis.
That harshness toward restrictions has seen growth on the right, allowing Noem’s national notoriety to rise. When Foster Friess, a prominent GOP donor who ran for governor of Wyoming in 2018, was asked recently about his own state’s lack of restrictions, he used Noem as the standard.
“Wyoming is much like South Dakota, which under leadership of a true American Patriot, Kristi Noem, was pretty much open from the beginning,” Friess said in an email.
All of that conservative prominence can help little, however, when it comes to actually leading a state through the pandemic. During a briefing Monday, testing was a clear concern for Noem, who also claimed at the same time the state is “doing well,” even though she wants to be more aggressive.
“What my communication has been with the administration is, I can have the machines but I need the supplies to run the machines,” Noem said of a phone call with Vice President Mike Pence.
One expert noted that South Dakota’s approach comes with risks.
If a leader chooses to avoid a shelter-in-place order, there’s an obligation to do “very good contact tracing,” said Arnold S. Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan
“What it means is you have to be sure that you can handle the consequences by having good contact tracing and testing,” Monto said.