RAPID CITY, S.D. — Standing before a crowd of more than 100 midwestern legislators gathered in a Rapid City convention center this week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem repeated a line she has dropped around the country, from cable news to conservative political conventions.
"In South Dakota, we got a little bit more attention... for not ever closing businesses," said Noem, to light applause at the Midwestern Legislative Conference, a nonpartisan association of 11 states and 4 Canadian provinces.
For seasoned observers of the Republican governor, it's her "in South Dakota, we never shut down" speech.
As she has before, on Tuesday, July 13, Noem hit the highlights, delivering a postcard-sized version of her administration's pandemic response, boasting her team didn't engage in "defining what businesses were essential" and avoided "any shelter in place mandates."
It's a mantra, however, perhaps masking as a sales pitch for a potential presidential run that she has previously said she has no interest in, that is qualified by a spate of executive orders — nearly 30 in total — that Noem and her team issued throughout 2020 all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Those were stay-at-home orders," Rep. Linda Duba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, told Forum News Service this week, "And she conveniently forgets that."
A review of previous administrative announcements, particularly early on in the pandemic's arrival in South Dakota, shows that at least one executive order issued by Noem — and still posted to the Secretary of State's website — was a stay-at-home orders by any other name.
On April 6, 2020, with confirmed cases still low but officials planning for 5,000 beds and 1,300 ventilators, Noem's team dispatched an executive order that said the governor ordered that residents 65 and older or who had an underlying health condition in two of the state's largest counties, Minnehaha and Lincoln, which encompass Sioux Falls, "shall stay at home or a place of residence" unless working in "critical infrastructure" or conducting "essential errands."
That same day, Noem said in a press conference, "we're changing the 'shoulds' to 'shalls'" in her executive order. Two days later, Noem's political team announced a "statewide day of prayer" to end the pandemic.
The early April remain-in-place order, while limited compared to other states and municipalities, wasn't the only directive Noem gave the state's residents. Throughout multiple executive orders, even as early as March 23, the governor also delineated between "essential" and non-essential jobs, activities, and businesses in the orders from Pierre.
On March 13, 2020, three days after the first known positive case being confirmed in the state, Noem ordered "non-essential" public employees to work from home.
Ten days later, an order from the governor's office on the second floor of the Statehouse told South Dakotans to assist personnel in "essential" jobs, such as first responders.
Moreover, that same March 23 executive order told "any enclosed retail business that promotes public gatherings" — which the order defined as everything from bars to casinos to health clubs — to suspend or modify their business practices.
Even as late as April 24, Noem issued an order reemphasizing that a previous order urged "all South Dakotans" who were "particularly vulnerable to COVID-19" to stay home.
The governor's spokesman, Ian Fury, told FNS in an email on Thursday, July 15, that their office doesn't consider the March 23 order, nor the order for Lincoln and Minnehaha County, to be "mandatory."
The "personal, business and healthcare precautions" order on March 23, Fury said, "uses the word 'should' throughout because it was a recommendation." Regarding the Lincoln and Minnehaha County measure, Fury wrote the order "used the language 'if possible' to allow folks to continue to go about their daily lives as necessary, and it was narrowly targeted to the vulnerable population."
Fury added Noem was the "only governor" to never tell a church or business to close its doors.
Those orders, of course, tell only a small slice of the story.
While Noem did not impose the kind of vast, sweeping executive powers imposed by, say, Gov. Tim Walz in neighboring Minnesota, where Walz and other leaders implemented mask mandates, closed in-person worship at churches and sued a rodeo organizer, Noem also used her bully pulpit to send messages to shut down or avoid, at least temporarily, private businesses on at least two occasions.
On April 21, 2020, Noem urged members of the public to stay away from a dirt track race in North Sioux City that had expected to generate hundreds of spectators.
And her most noteworthy action came on April 11, 2020, when she and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken reacted to a hot-spot at the massive pork slaughterhouse Smithfield's in Sioux Falls, one that would eventually see over 1,000 workers infected and some dying, by writing to the meat processing company's CEO asking for them to shut the facility down.
A day later, Smithfield executives announced the plant would close indefinitely. It wasn't until a month later that a reopening plan would emerge.
Still, even early on in the pandemic, Noem and the legislature were reticent to impose social-distancing measures, even as schools across the state sent children home. Most decisions, inevitably, wound up in the laps of local leaders.
On March 10, 2020, the same days as the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the state, the women's basketball programs from rivals the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University squared off in front of a large crowd in Sioux Falls for the conference championship game.
"They let all those 8,000 fans sit cheek-to-jowl," Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth told FNS. "That was just totally irresponsible."
On April 28, 2020, when hospital beds hadn't filled as predicted by state health leaders, Noem's team released a "back to normal" plan, with an announcement saying the state had "slowed the spread."
But, in hindsight, that was just the beginning.
Within months, after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and other summer events gave way to cooler fall temperatures, South Dakota would be facing some of the worst encounters with the virus witnessed on the globe. By conservative estimates, numbers suggest roughly 1 out of 7 South Dakotans has been infected by COVID-19 rivaling and surpassing numbers in nearly every other state.
But during the months of September, October, and November, when death and infection rates rose dramatically, cramming hospital beds and leading more cities and counties to issue masking requirements in public places, there were no more orders issued from the second floor in Pierre.
Leaving many to wonder what might've been.
Even the April 28 "return to normal" plan had acknowledged that South Dakotans had been "dedicated to following the directions and guidance to respond to this pandemic."
"I thought her [Noem's] responses were correct," said Duba. "And then she pivoted when the president pivoted, and there was nothing we could say or do."