In The Moment ... April 7, 2020 Show 790 Hour 1
South Dakota is one of five states in the country without a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And despite requests, the South Dakota Department of Health has not declared a public health emergency.
Governor Kristi Noem has been hesitant to employ a statewide declaration. Instead, she's opting for executive orders that leave some local government leaders unclear about their authority. SDPB's Lee Strubinger reports:
Governor Kristi Noem’s approach to preventing transmission of COVID-19 is changing. Her first executive order presented a list of things that people, businesses, health care organizations and local governments should do. Now Noem has toughened the language changing "should" to "shall."
She announced a second executive order for Minnehaha and Lincoln counties. That orders individuals 65 and older—as well as those with chronic medical conditions—to stay home for the next three weeks. Those counties hold the lion’s share of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
“This is the plan that everybody in our state will be on board with," Noem says.
But it’s not the plan that 160 other local government leaders want. The municipal league has asked the governor to call for a public health declaration. That would give the Secretary of Health the authority to prevent transmission of diseases with isolation orders and place restrictions on businesses statewide.
Governor Noem says lawmakers took up just such a request on Veto Day last week.
“If you remember, I brought a bill that I and my team drafted, proposed to the legislature, to ask for some of these things the local leaders have bene asking us for," Noem says. "That bill did not pass on Veto Day. Therefore, we’re continuing to examine the situation and see what would be appropriate.”
However, the bill Noem proposed dealt with city and county authority and shortening timeframes to pass ordinances, not declaring a public health emergency.
Noem says she will use every authority she has to take appropriate action at the appropriate time. She’s been reluctant to use such an order.
“I have all the faith in the world of the people of South Dakota,” Noem says. “They’ve been absolute rock stars in working to protect their communities and their families.”
But county and city government leaders continue to make independent recommendations, resulting in a patchwork of regulations and restrictions across the state.
Late last week, Yankton County—another county with significant community spread of the coronavirus—created a board of health. The move came following reports there were crowded bars and restaurants just outside city limits.
Cheri Loest is chair of the Yankton County Commission. She says they’re giving the board of health the authority to restrict the number of people in bars and restaurants to no more than ten people at a time. That adheres to current CDC recommendations.
“We are not closing any businesses, we do not feel we have the authority to do that,” Loest says. “But instead, we are enforcing the governor’s directive to minimize crowds.”
Loest says local government leaders across the state are frustrated. She says that stems from confusion over what authority county governments actually have.
The mayors of Rapid City and Sioux Falls have repeatedly asked the governor for a statewide mandate of some kind.
During one of the governor’s recent press briefings, Noem said she was not considering a statewide measure.
“I’ve been very clear about the fact that I don’t think decisions for Sioux Falls are the same decisions that are correct and right for a town like Faith South Dakota, or Lemmon South Dakota,” Noem says.
Lemmon Mayor Neil Pinnow says the governor is correct
“But there’s some good things and some bad things about that," he adds.
-Sioux Falls and Lemmon are different. The pandemic creates different concerns for smaller cities.
“If we get enough cases in this area--if our hospital in Hettinger, North Dakota, is overrun the next closest hospital is 140 miles away in Bismarck,” Pinnow says.
Sioux Falls has more people, and more health care options. Rapid City is nearly 200 miles away. That nearby hospital in North Dakota, he says, has four ventilators and serves a large area.
“Our healthcare facility—and those people are doing an amazing job—but, they’re servicing a lot of communities that are 1,200-1,500 people and you combine those altogether, between North Dakota and South Dakota that that’s their main health facility--that’s a huge issue," Pinnow says. "They get 50 people that are hospitalized with this, they’re going to be full. The doctors and nurses over there are going to be overrun. Then, what are you going to do?”
Pinnow is a part time mayor. He and his colleagues are trying to make important decisions without a lot of directive from the state or the Department of Health.
The Municipal League says the current authority available to cities and counties dates back to 1939 and is untested in this kind of a crisis. There will likely be even more tests of government authority ahead. The projected peak of COVID-19 cases in South Dakota is still months away.