South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem defends hands-off approach to COVID-19

Republican Governor Kristi Noem defended her decision not to implement mask mandates or order business closures during the pandemic.

Video Transcript

MARGARET: And we're back with the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem. She's attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida. Good morning to you, Governor.

KRISTI NOEM: Good morning, Margaret. Thank you for having me.

MARGARET: We just heard from Dr. Fauci, who said it is too early to peel back health restrictions, do things like not have mask mandates. And I know you don't have one in your state. How do you want to respond to him?

KRISTI NOEM: Well, I'd like to respond to something that you said. You indicated that I ignored medical advice, I didn't listen to my health experts. And I most certainly did. In South Dakota, we took this virus very seriously. What I did, though, was tell my people the truth. I gave them personal responsibility over decisions for their familes' public health, but also gave them the flexibility they needed to keep their businesses open, take care of their employees and their customers.

So you know, I really do believe that, as this virus has spread throughout the country, that people needed that flexibility. And South Dakota's doing well. We've had some tragic situations. But I know that respecting them in my role and the authority that I have as governor has been incredibly helpful to get our state get through this challenging time.

MARGARET: Well, we played that clip from your speech. And in that speech, you also said you never instituted a mask order, shut any churches or businesses, or even defined what an essential business is. As of today, the CDC says your state has the eighth highest death rate per capita in the US. That's the rate of deaths per 100,000 residents. Don't you think your decisions as an executive contributed?

KRISTI NOEM: You know, South Dakota's infection rate peaked earlier than a lot of other places in the country. So we're definitely on the downward trend, and earlier, and peaked earlier than what you're seeing happen across the country as well. You know, you can talk about masks, we can talk about mitigation measures, all of that. What I'm against is mandates.

MARGARET: These were CDC numbers as of today. And it was the death rate.

KRISTI NOEM: What I am against is mandates that would tell people what they have to do. I want people to make those decisions for themselves. And we've seen the CDC change recommendations over and over and over again. In fact, we've seen them do it just based on political pressure. We follow the science, the data, and the facts in South Dakota to make our decisions. And it's been incredibly helpful to make sure that we're taking care of people who need it when they get sick.

MARGARET: I was asking you about the death rate as of today according to the CDC, not the infection rate, which you're talking about. But one of your fellow Republicans, West Virginia's governor Jim Justice, held up your state as an example of what not to do when it comes to his decision to institute a mask mandate. He said, I don't want to be South Dakota. Why do you think your state got hit so hard?

KRISTI NOEM: Our state peaked earlier than other states, than his state, than New York, than California. They certainly are seeing much higher infection rates, much higher hospitalization rates, and much higher deaths today than we are. And that's really how we've seen this virus spread across the country. What I'd like to know, Margaret, is why-- are you asking Cuomo these questions? Are you talking to Newsom about these questions and how their mitigation measures of shutting down businesses? How did--

MARGARET: When both of those governors accept an invitation to come on this program, and I hope they do, madam. I really hope they say yes. And I really appreciate that you did to our invitation.

KRISTI NOEM: Mm-hmm, absolutely.

MARGARET: So that's why I'm asking about your state. They have not said yes. So for your state, you have, if you look at-- starting in July, which was after that spring peak, you have the highest death rate, cumulative COVID deaths per million, in the country. The CDC says you have the eighth highest death rate per capita. Now, I'm not talking about infection rates. I know you're a conservative and you care about the sanctity of life. So how can you justify making decisions that put the health of your constituents at risk?

KRISTI NOEM: And those are questions that you should be asking every other governor in this country as well.

MARGARET: I'm asking you today, madame. You're our--

KRISTI NOEM: The region that South Dakota's in--

MARGARET: You're facing the nation.

KRISTI NOEM: I'm answering you. I'm answering you, Margaret. I'm answering you. Regionally, we have seen the virus hit the country very differently. And it hit the Midwest earlier than it did the South, and now the East Coast and the West Coast. So we are still dealing with this virus in this country.

South Dakota went through our highest rate of infections and implications earlier. The rest of the country is dealing with much higher numbers today. And that's really what this means. What we should be looking at is, did the mitigation measures help?

Did mandating different actions in each of these states make a difference? Because what we're seeing is that the mandates aren't necessarily what's working. It's that people have the ability, the flexibility to not just look at this virus and how it hits their health, but also how does it impact their well-being--

MARGARET: Yeah.

KRISTI NOEM: --their economic well-being, their ability to keep their kids in school, their ability to keep their businesses open--

MARGARET: Well, let's talk about that.

KRISTI NOEM: --pay their bills. That's been incredibly challenging.

MARGARET: Let's talk about that. Because there is a $12 billion price tag that has been pegged to the impact of and fallout from that Sturgis motorcycle rally that you hosted in your state in August. It is blamed for seeding the entire Midwest outbreak that hit in that late summer through the fall. Do you take personal responsibility for that?

KRISTI NOEM: Well, that is completely false information. That is not true.

MARGARET: This is the San Diego State University study.

KRISTI NOEM: And we need to tell the-- and it is not based on facts. We tracked the people that came to the rally, had states report back to use, cases that came from that rally. It was less than 100 cases that we could track to that. And we did testing in that community and throughout the area for weeks after.

Listen, what we did was allow people to make decisions for themselves. We gave them all the information on this virus, how to protect their health. And then we allowed them to make decisions on what they would do. My question is, if we had mandated that people had to stay home, if we had mandated that businesses had to be closed, would that have made a difference? And I would argue that it wouldn't have, that we allowed people to make these decisions that would best--

MARGARET: President Trump's COVID czar, Dr. Birx, said, if those people who had attended Sturgis, if they'd gone home wearing masks, that it would have actually saved lives. She said that on this program. But how do you justify the death of your constituents, though? And when you talk about personal responsibility, which I know is a value you talk a lot about, when your personal choices put others at risk, isn't that the opposite of responsible?

KRISTI NOEM: It's been an incredibly challenging year for so many people. And everyone across this country has-- knows someone who we have lost to this virus. I think we need to examine the actions that we've taken and see if it has allowed people to make decisions and honored our rights and our freedoms in this country in a way that respects what makes America special. Making decisions in one state, Dr. Fauci just said, might be very different than what another state should be doing.

That's how I looked at my state. I have one community that may need to make a different decision on what they'd like to do than another community that may be of a different size, be in a different area, or at a different infection rate or hospitalization rate. So that's why I gave them that flexibility. We took this virus very seriously, but I also let them look locally at what was the best actions to take to protect their health, but also keep their businesses open and protect the economy that they were dealing with.

MARGARET: Ronna McDaniel coming up on this program shortly, she's the chairwoman of your party. She said, the former president did not meet the moment with his words on January 6, the siege of the Capitol. Do you agree with her?

KRISTI NOEM: You know, I think that we were all just heartbroken at what happened on January 6. And it was a tragic situation. Going forward, I'm hoping that we can focus on facts, ways to unify this country and bring us together and really make sure that we're pursuing opening up new opportunities for our kids and our grandkids.

MARGARET: Was it avoidable, if the president had met the moment?

KRISTI NOEM: You know, I think there's always times that we don't like different words that have been chosen. But I worked with this president when he was in office to do some big things for the American people. And he did some things that I certainly appreciated that were beneficial for my state.

KRISTI NOEM: Do you see him as your party's nominee for president in 2024? Will you support him?

KRISTI NOEM: You know, I think that, as we go into the coming years, that we certainly will see who decides to jump into that race. But I'm focused on South Dakota, what's best for our state, and letting our people make the best decisions for their future.

MARGARET: Governor, thank you for coming on the program today and taking questions. Appreciate it.

KRISTI NOEM: Thank you.