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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem worries about how ‘neighbors are treating neighbors’ over masks

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem challenged media narratives on the rise of positive coronavirus cases in her state Wednesday, denying that her refusal to implement a mask mandate or strict lockdown policies is the cause of surging cases.

Speaking to reporters, Noem said South Dakotans are tired and exhausted from the pandemic and that she worries about how people are treating their neighbors who have different opinions on masks, social distancing, or lockdowns.

“At this point, frankly, I’m getting more concerned about how neighbors are treating neighbors and how people are treating each other in their communities,” Noem said.

“I’ve consistently said that people that want to wear masks should wear masks and people who don’t shouldn’t be shamed because they choose not to. It has been clear from the beginning that I’m not in favor of mandating mask-wearing. I don’t believe that i have the authority to mandate that and that people can use their own personal responsibility to make a decision when it comes to masks.

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“I don’t want to approach a policy or a mandate, looking to make people feel good. I want to do good,” she added when asked how she would respond to medical professionals calling for a statewide mask mandate.

According to KELO-TV, South Dakota reported 30 COVID-19 deaths Wednesday. The total number of positive coronavirus cases reported in the state since the pandemic began is 68,671. Of those positive cases, 48,757 people have recovered and 19,240 people still have active cases. There are currently 593 South Dakotans hospitalized with COVID-19.

Gov. Noem urged South Dakota residents to continue practicing personal hygiene and following guidelines from the state Department of Health on hand washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing. Though the health department recommends mask-wearing, Noem reiterated it is beyond her authority to mandate mask-wearing or implement legal penalties on South Dakota citizens who don’t wear masks. She also discussed how South Dakota’s per capita positive case rates compare to other states, noting that some states with mask mandates are actually doing worse than her state.

“Across the country and around the globe, cases are increasing. Over the past week, cases are on the rise in 48 states,” Noem said. “Some have said that my refusal to mandate masks is a reason why our cases are rising here in the state of South Dakota, and that is not true. Others have said that my refusal to advance harsh restrictions like lockdowns is another one of the reasons why our cases are rising and that is also not true.”

“There are 41 states that have some kind of mask mandate. Cases are on the rise in 39 of those 41 states,” she continued. “Now, some in the media are saying that South Dakota is the worst in the world right now, and that is absolutely false.”

Noem claimed several states that have implemented mask mandates are experiencing higher rates of spread for the virus than South Dakota.

“If you look at Wisconsin, they’ve had a mask mandate since August and they have a higher rate of spread than the state of South Dakota. You look at Montana, they’ve had a mask mandate in place since July. Both of those states have higher rates of spread than the state of South Dakota. When you look at Wyoming, it has the highest rate of spread in the nation.”

She pointed reporters to research from Johns Hopkins University that tracks new confirmed coronavirus cases per 1,000 people as daily counts as reported by each state. The research shows that there are several states with higher new case rates than South Dakota.

Reporters challenged Noem’s claim on social media. According to the New York Times, South Dakota has the second-highest amount of cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for Noem, replied to one columnist with the Argus Leader with a link to the Johns Hopkins research showing Wyoming, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Montana having higher confirmed case rates per 1,000 people.

During her press conference, Noem also mentioned that South Dakota remains below the national average mortality rate and has the “7th lowest case fatality rate in the country.”

The governor emphasized that residents should still take the virus seriously and that elderly people and those with pre-existing conditions are most vulnerable to fatal complications from contracting COVID-19. These groups need extra protection from the virus, Noem said.

She urged people to be diligent with their personal hygiene and to stay home if they feel sick.

On Tuesday, the Sioux Falls City Council adopted a mask mandate but did not enact a penalty for those who refuse to wear masks. Amid demands from medical experts and commentators that Noem adopt a mask mandate, she observed that imposing a mandate without enforcement is virtually the same as issuing guidelines without a mandate, as her administration has done.

“I’m going to continue to trust South Dakotans to make wise and well-informed decisions for them and for their families,” she said. “And I’m also reiterating my request that we all continue to show each other respect and understanding for everybody who makes choices that we may or may not agree with. And I ask that we all trust each other and remember that we’re all human beings working to get through this challenge together.

“Our greatest enemy is the virus,” Noem said.

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