South Dakota Governor Declines Stay-Home Order Despite Virus Outbreak

A car with a sign calling for a safe and healthy workplace drives past Smithfield Foods, Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., during a protest on behalf of employees after many workers complained of unsafe working conditions due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The plant was forced to close after nearly 300 of the plant’s workers tested positive for the virus.
(Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP, File)

(CN) — South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said Tuesday a stay-at-home order would not have prevented a Covid-19 outbreak which shut down one of the largest pork-processing plants in the country, declining to bow to pressure from local officials calling for her to change course.

“A shelter-in-place would have had no impact on what happened in Sioux Falls,” Noem said during a press conference Tuesday.

“The plant would have been up and running as an exempted business even if there were a stay-at-home order,” she added.

South Dakota made national news Monday after hundreds connected to the Smithfield pork processing plant in the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Noem confirmed Tuesday 438 employees from the plant had tested positive for the virus and that they had gone on to infect an additional 107 people through close contact with family and friends.

The Smithfield outbreak accounts for 70% of the positive novel coronavirus cases in Minnehaha and surrounding counties, Noem said.

The jump in cases from 300 reported over the weekend represents “spread we’ve seen in the last couple days that has been at home,” Noem said.

She noted plant workers and other residents in the state who are infected with coronavirus and can’t self-isolate away from family members can do so at hotel rooms procured by the state.

While the outbreak prompted the South Dakota Department of Health to triple its staff working in contact tracing to track who may have been exposed to someone infected with the Covid-19 virus, Noem said “I don’t believe it’s appropriate considering the data and facts we have” to issue a stay-at-home order.

Noem’s decision declining to issue a statewide stay-at-home order comes after Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken called on the governor to follow the course of state leaders across the country to flatten the curve of the pandemic by making residents stay home. TenHaken’s office did not return a phone call requesting comment by press time.

Noem suggested Tuesday the city of Sioux Falls could issue its own mandate to make residents stay home.

But University of South Dakota political science professor Michael Card told Courthouse News while the locality could issue a stay-at-home order it would be required to give residents a seven-day notice, meanwhile Covid-19 cases could continue to spread.

“It’s certainly tension from the mayors’ perspective,” Card said, noting TenHaken and Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender had been calling on Noem to issue a stay-at-home order for a month.

Card also said Noem’s reluctance to shut down business-as-usual in the state could be due to her campaign promise to have South Dakota be “open for business.”

“She has mentioned that but not directly in line with her rationale for not issuing a stay-at-home order,” Card said, pointing out Noem is also working with the state’s three major hospitals on a clinical trial to test whether the drug hydroxychloroquine could successfully treat or prevent Covid-19.

He also noted Noem – a Republican – is a “very strong supporter of President Trump,” who himself has touted treating Covid-19 with hydroxychloroquine – a drug commonly used to manage the autoimmune disease Lupus – despite no scientific evidence supporting its use as a treatment for coronavirus.

Trump supplied South Dakota with enough doses to treat up to 100,000 people and to conduct a 2,000-person clinical trial, Noem said during her press conference Tuesday.

Health officials in Brazil halted a similar study of the drug, however, after heart rhythm problems developed in a quarter of the people given the higher of two doses being tested.

Card said the state is expected to take a major hit to tourism revenue — its second biggest industry — due to the pandemic. He said South Dakota stands to rake in less than half of the tourism bucks it usually generates from summer tourists who visit the Black Hills mountains or pass through on their way to visit Yellowstone National Park.

He said resort-type communities in the western part of the state had already experienced layoffs during the pandemic.

Noem warned Tuesday there is significantly lower sales tax revenue being generated but state officials won’t know the scope of the pandemic’s impact on South Dakota’s economy until March figures are released at the end of the month and in early May.

The outbreak and shutdown at the Smithfield pork plant is just the tip of the iceberg of the economic strain the pandemic will have on the farming industry in South Dakota.

South Dakota State University professor and extension agribusiness specialist Matthew Elliott said in an email crop and animal production makes up 10% of the state’s gross domestic product, with other agribusiness such as ethanol production from corn and meat processing making up another 10–20% of the state’s GDP.

Elliott said while there’s no stay-at-home order in the state and agribusiness would be exempt from any shutdown, businesses are already idling production or reducing capacity on their own.

The impact will be felt nationwide, Elliott said.

“Not all meat processing plants are idle at this time, and there is some slack in the system, but the longer the plants are not able to open there will likely be shortages at the supermarkets,” Elliott said.

“More immediately, ag producers have lost market outlets for their livestock that is ready for slaughter. Prices for livestock have significantly declined as a result of the idle processing plants,” Elliott added.

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