South Dakota’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic has produced contrasting results: one of the nation’s best economic recoveries, and one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks.
Governor Kristi Noem’s rejection of statewide shelter-in-place orders, business shutdowns and mask mandates has made her a celebrity in the Republican Party. She campaigned for President Trump in 17 states and touted her own record last month in Maine and New Hampshire.
“What I did in South Dakota is what we say Republicans always believe,” Noem said during a campaign stop. “We just did it.”
But not all Republican leaders took the same approach.
Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott ordered statewide shutdowns. He mandated masks. And when he reopened the state’s economy, he did it slowly.
“My decisions throughout this pandemic, from the closures and other mitigation steps in March and April, to the methodical reopening of our economy, hospitals and schools, has been based on the data, the science and the recommendations of our health experts,” Scott said during a public briefing.
Vermont now has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country. While South Dakota frequently suffers more than 1,000 new infections per day (and more than 2,000 on Nov. 12), Vermont reports fewer than 3,000 total cases since the pandemic began. And Vermont reports 59 COVID deaths, while South Dakota has 644.
Vermont also has one of the nation’s most recovered economies. It ranks close behind South Dakota in some national categories, like unemployment rates, where South Dakota ranks second (4.1 percent) and Vermont ranks third (4.2 percent).
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said his state chose a balanced approach to the virus and its economic consequences.
“We felt we could reopen the economy and do the appropriate public health measures for the pandemic in parallel,” Levine said, “and that you didn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.”
Shoulds and shalls
Vermont and South Dakota have some similarities. They both have fewer than 1 million people (South Dakota has about 900,000, and Vermont has about 600,000), including many who live in rural settings.
But when the pandemic began, the states went in different directions.
South Dakota’s Gov. Noem said statewide shutdowns weren’t sustainable. Instead, she issued an executive order. It listed suggested precautions for people, businesses and local governments against COVID-19.
But the order included words like “should” instead of “shall.” Reporters were confused.
“I was just looking through your executive order,” one reporter said during a March press conference. “It says, ‘Municipal governments should …’ I mean, is that a legal requirement, or is that advice?”
Noem responded, “It’s telling them what they should do.”
She refused to clarify. But it soon became clear she was not enforcing the executive order. Some cities responded with their own ordinances that shut down or restricted certain businesses. But without statewide enforcement, most of those local ordinances eventually faded away. Later, Noem updated the "shoulds" in the executive order with "shalls." Yet she continued to stress personal responsibility over statewide mandates.
In Vermont, Governor Scott immediately used regular news conferences to give residents clear orders.
“Sunday, I ordered the dismissal of pre-K through 12 schools, which began today,” Scott said during one March news conference. “Monday, I ordered the closure of bars and restaurants statewide, though they can still offer takeout. And yesterday, I directed the closure of licensed child-care centers across the state.”
And the list went on. The two states’ different approaches yielded similar results, at first. Both states’ economies took a hit (Vermont's economic downturn was initially worse, because of its more aggressive actions). Both states used federal money to soften the economic pain. And both had few COVID infections for the first several months.
Masks vs. motorcycles
Over the summer, things changed.
Gov. Noem hosted President Donald Trump for fireworks at Mount Rushmore, and 7,000 people attended the July event with no mask requirement. Noem called the science on masks “mixed.”
“You all know that I’m opposed to a statewide mask mandate,” she said during a press conference. “I’ve been clear about that.”
In August, hundreds of thousands of people showed up in South Dakota for the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, Gov. Scott announced and imposed a statewide mask mandate. He announced the state would give away 300,000 cloth face coverings.
“I’m asking you to look at the data – the real data, not just something you see on Facebook – and realize that the science is real,” Scott said at the time. “And that wearing a mask will not only protect the gains we’ve made, but also help your family members and friends stay healthy.”
Scott kept the mask mandate in place when he reopened the economy. He also kept other restrictions, like limits on gatherings.
As South Dakota remained open throughout the summer and Vermont slowly began to reopen, their economic recoveries outpaced many other states.
But the two states’ COVID trends diverged dramatically. On some recent days, South Dakota’s deaths have outnumbered Vermont’s new infections.
Fauci wants to ‘bottle that’
Vermont has not been immune to the virus or the economic downturn. The state’s Chamber of Commerce president, Betsy Bishop, said lodging establishments are especially affected by state-imposed restrictions on travelers from hotspots, and by other state-imposed pandemic precautions.
But Bishop said many Vermonters agree with Gov. Scott that the virus and economy can't be dealt with separately.
“It’s pretty clear that our governor is not going to make a change in how he is setting forth the guidance that the science and the health of people will rule over the economy, from now until this is past us,” Bishop said. “And I think to be fair, Vermonters and businesses have accepted that as the right thing.”
Scott won re-election in a landslide this month. Even some Vermont Democrats praise Scott’s handling of the pandemic. Howard Dean is a Democrat and former governor of the state.
“Phil told the truth, he listened to the scientists, he was calm and he understood Vermonters,” Dean said.
Vermont is getting national attention, too. The nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, sang the state's praises during a joint press conference with Scott.
“I was sitting here listening to the numbers that he said, and I wonder if I could bottle that and take that with me,” Fauci said.
Fauci also stressed the importance of vigilance. Vermont’s infection rate is now rising, and the state recently had its first-ever day with more than 100 new COVID cases. That motivated a tweet from Gov. Scott.
"I understand Vermonters feel fatigued from the pandemic and the sacrifices it has required," Scott's tweet said. "But we must all do our part to slow the spread, protect our neighbors, keep kids in school and keep our economy open."
-Contact SDPB reporter Seth Tupper by email.