In the wake of a superspreader motorcycle rally and other nearly maskless mass gatherings such as a buffalo roundup, South Dakota has itself become a superspreader.
And at a press conference this week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz held South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem partly responsible for a COVID-19 surge in his state that is now forcing him to impose new restrictions. He pointedly cited this summer’s Sturgis motorcycle rally.
“Absolutely unnecessary,” Walz said of the rally.
Walz added that the largely maskless 200,000 who attended the rally in August had then spread the virus to Minnesota and across the nation. He observed that Noem continues to dismiss even the idea of a mask mandate. (He imposed one in July.)
Walz may not have known about another big South Dakota event. After Sturgis, Noem had proceeded to host the Governor’s Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park on Sept. 25. That largely maskless crowd of 20,000—up 1,000 from last year—began lining up hours before the event, standing less than the recommended 6 feet apart. They continued to largely ignore social distancing after they were admitted to a roped-off area. They crowded shoulder to shoulder at the perimeter’s edge to watch horseback riders herd 1,450 buffalo into a fenced-in section of Custer State Park. They looked on as the buffalo were examined and vaccinated, since herd immunity does not work even for herds.
Noem once again proved to be a model of what not to do as she stepped before the crowd without a mask. She hugged a number of maskless officials before taking to the podium to say a few words.
Also maskless, Walter Panzirer of the Helmsley Charitable Trust spoke of the interpretive visitor center his non-profit is building near the buffalo corral. The foundation was founded by Leona Helmsley, the hotelier and felon known as “the Queen of Mean.” She was famous for having evicted her son’s widow from a family-owned house the day after the funeral. She once remarked to a maid that “taxes are for the little people.” The IRS took a different position and she spent 16 months in federal prison.
But there is no denying that the foundation bearing her name has done considerable good, especially in outlying areas with inadequate medical care. Panzirer is said by a spokesperson to be a big believer in wearing masks and to have taken his off only while at the podium. He nonetheless should have perceived some irony in what he said to a crowd that was largely ignoring the recommended precautions in a pandemic.
“We believe in rural health care,” he said.
The statement became no less jarring as he went on to say that the interpretive center would contribute to public health by encouraging people to get out and enjoy nature. He gestured to the surrounding hills, a vast, deserted expanse that made it only more nonsensically reckless for so many people to gather so close together. He could have made an immediate and cost-free contribution to public health simply by immediately putting on a mask and telling everyone else to do the same while establishing social distancing.
Noem could have done so that very day for the whole state, thereby preventing thousands of infections. She instead let the virus spike in South Dakota to where it is becoming a spreader state. She has repeated baseless doubts about the efficacy of masks and continued to demonstrate the destructive power of a bad example.
On Saturday, Noem demonstrated that her nonfeasance in the face of a pandemic was not the result of an inability to take decisive action. She and her family joined the bidding at the buffalo auction that follows the round-up. The Noems are said by a person involved in the auction to have acquired five. One or two were females, a mix that would allow the Noems to start their very own herd.
As the virus continued to spike, Noem was perpetually out of state, assisting the Trump campaign in herding his followers. She described her state as an example for the whole nation, even the world, to follow in addressing the pandemic.
“I appreciate that President Trump gave me the flexibility to do the right thing in our state,” she told ABC News. “He let me do my job.”
She began an online campaign to raise funds to support Trump’s effort to contest the election. Never remind that the money went directly into her own election coffers. She no longer immediately said she was not interested when people asked if she is contemplating a presidential run in 2024.
The virus spiked ever higher in South Dakota, trading off with North Dakota over which had the nation’s highest per capita rate of new cases and deaths. Both states border Minnesota, but Walz placed particular blame on Noem when he announced on Monday that the rising number of new cases in his state was forcing him to impose a variety of new measures, including a reduction in the capacity of restaurants and in size of gatherings of whatever kind, to 50, and then down to 25.
He made it known he was offended by the political roadshow Noem undertook while her state’s COVID-19 cases spiked.
“And this one’s a little bit personal because the governor of South Dakota has taken to traveling to other states and criticizing others—now at a time when that state’s hospital capacity is overwhelmed,” Walz said.
A Noem spokesman insisted that Walz had it wrong, that South Dakota hospitals are only 66 percent full. The spokesman also offered an interpretation of remarks U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams made on Tuesday while visiting a mass testing site at the National Guard Armory in Pierre, South Dakota.
“I’d also point you to the surgeon general’s comments yesterday that South Dakota shouldn’t have a mask mandate,” the spokesman said.
That is not quite what Adams said. He devoted almost the entirety of his remarks to the necessity of wearing a mask, stating states should do “whatever it takes,” noting that studies show mandates work.
And here is what Adams did say about South Dakota and masks:
“You don’t have a mask mandate here. But what I would say to people of South Dakota is you really shouldn’t need a mandate to do the right thing for your community, your family, and your friends.”
He was not saying South Dakota should not have a mask mandate, only that it should not need one. He could not have been clearer when he described the COVID-19 situation in South Dakota without a mandate.
“Out of control,” he said.
No wonder Noem did not meet with Adams. Her spokesman said she was busy with the budget. That was in keeping with her unwillingness to sacrifice business for lives. On Wednesday, she continued to make her priorities clear with a tweet in all caps.
She then solved the mystery of what it could possibly be in a state reporting 1,202 new COVID-19 cases that day.
“South Dakota’s Sales & Use tax receipts are 8% higher than a year ago.”