As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Some Governors Resist Lockdowns, Mask Mandates South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has said her state proves "you don't need lockdowns to be responsible and flatten the curve." Health experts and coronavirus survivors disagree.

As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Some Governors Resist Lockdowns, Mask Mandates

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

South Dakota is trying to manage a huge outbreak of coronavirus. In fact, the state now has one of the highest rates of new infections in the country. But its Republican governor, Kristi Noem, has made it clear she believes the state has the pandemic under control. NPR's Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Standing in a cornfield, clad in hunting gear and holding a shotgun, this is South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem's version of a pandemic PSA.

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KRISTI NOEM: This is how we do social distancing in our state.

STONE: Noem smiles, turns around and shoots a pheasant as it flies by.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That was great.

NOEM: All right. Less COVID, more hunting. That's the plan for the future.

STONE: Noem's rising profile in Republican politics has, if anything, gained momentum from the pandemic. She shunned lockdowns and mask mandates, declared her state open for business, even encouraged half a million bikers to visit. And she's touted her state's success. This is Noem on Fox in July, when cases were quite low.

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NOEM: We gave people their freedom. We let the businesses stay open.

STONE: And this continues to be Noem's message even as her state has become one of the country's worst hot spots. Last week on Twitter, she said South Dakota is evidence that you don't need lockdowns to be responsible and flatten the curve.

CARRIE HENNING-SMITH: You can't look at the numbers and say that what's happening in South Dakota is working.

STONE: That's professor Carrie Henning-Smith, who studies rural health at the University of Minnesota. She says it's true that South Dakota and much of the country's interior was somewhat insulated from the pandemic early on. But being more remote only goes so far.

HENNING-SMITH: Not every person in South Dakota has the luxury of choosing to spend their time out hunting by themselves in an isolated location.

STONE: Daily cases have about doubled since mid-September. And while hospitals still have plenty of beds available, professor Bonny Specker, an epidemiologist at South Dakota State University, expects that to soon change.

BONNY SPECKER: Now we're seeing a much higher number of cases in the 60-plus age group. The hospitalizations are going to increase.

STONE: In recent weeks, the state has continually hit new records with active cases and hospitalizations. Lots of tests are coming back positive.

SPECKER: So I don't think it's under control at all.

STONE: State leaders have resisted mandates. There is only one city, Brookings, that pushed forward with its own rules, passing a citywide face mask requirement earlier this month. Nick Wendell is on the city council and acknowledges there was loud opposition.

NICK WENDELL: You really can't make public health policy in the midst of a crisis by a straw poll. You've really got to rely on medical experts.

STONE: But Wendell says he appreciates the governor's approach, leaving these decisions up to locals.

WENDELL: Certainly, the growth of the virus in South Dakota and the way it is spreading through our communities is concerning. But I'm not opposed to the way our state has handled this virus.

STONE: The day after the city passed the mandate, Michael Johnson, a chef and general manager of the Pheasant Restaurant and Lounge in Brookings, says his phone started ringing nonstop.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: With people saying like, oh, my gosh. I feel safe to come out now. I was a little leery before. I kind of have felt like certain sectors of our community have been left out of the conversation. And that includes people who are not necessarily good with technology, for our nursing home residents.

STONE: Johnson says the mask mandate has made a big difference. His restaurant is busier. People aren't as afraid. But the decision came at a cost.

JOHNSON: The public dialogue just got kind of angry and divisive and sort of two entrenched camps. And I thought that was very uncharacteristic of our community.

STONE: Johnson says, suddenly, it felt like toxic national politics had creeped into his hometown. He hopes it blows over.

Will Stone, NPR News.

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