Public Health Emergency? State and Local Authorities Still as Odds Over Emergency Powers

Mar 31, 2020

Credit Cara Hetland / SDPB

Governor Kristi Noem has already issued a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus. But many are waiting for her to declare a public health emergency. 

That distinction is frustrating local leaders—especially after lawmakers defeated a bill that would have granted more specific authorities during a public health emergency. 

A state of emergency gives the governor more flexibility to work with federal partners. It also triggers certain state resources. For instance, the governor declared a state of emergency last year to help responses during major flooding. 

By state law, a public health emergency deals with threats of illness that pose “a significant risk of substantial harm.” In a public health emergency, the Department of Health has authority to plan and execute emergency assessment, mitigation, and response efforts.

Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon says South Dakota hasn’t reached that point.

“The use of that is really for individual cases where individuals are not complying, they’re known to be a carrier of a contagious disease and are not following guidance to protect themselves and others,” she explains.

This week, state lawmakers defeated a bill that would have given the secretary of health more enforcement power in a public health emergency. That included closing businesses and other public gathering places.

Governor Noem maintains she is doing everything in her power to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

“And I clearly laid out what my intentions and my directions are for the state of South Dakota in my executive order than I put out previously," she says. 

But local leaders are upset after lawmakers refused to authorize additional powers for the secretary of health - and to let county leaders declare their own public health emergencies.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender said as much in a Tuesday press briefing: “South Dakota’s not unified in this effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken says the virus does not recognize city limits.

“I’ve said this term kind of ad nauseum," he says, "but we have this patchwork legislation that we’re doing that is different from city to city to county to—it’s all different.”

TenHaken says city leaders are now left to weigh public health concerns with legal risks when they decide to take action.