While Vermont faces economic woes unseen in recent history due to Gov. Phil Scott’s shutdown mandates, one state with a similar rural landscape and population has taken a very different approach to mitigate the coronavirus without devastating its economy.
Since the declaration of the pandemic, South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, has bucked the trend of state leaders declaring a state of emergency and shutting down businesses and freedoms. Six months later, the results in the Mount Rushmore State are a low death count and strong economic reports.
“I trusted my people, they trusted me, they took personal responsibility for dealing with this virus and we’re doing very well,” Noem told Fox News earlier this month. “Not only do we have one of the lowest death rates, we have got about 40 people who are in the hospital today statewide, our infection rates are low, our job losses is low, our economy is doing better than virtually every other state.”
Noem continued that such results could have been possible in other states but “the governors just made the wrong decisions.”
The economic performance of the two states since the onset of COVID-19 differs greatly. South Dakota ended its fiscal year in June with a $19 million surplus, which includes revenues that came in lower than expected. In contrast, Vermont ended the same fiscal year with about a $146 million shortfall and $430 million in predicted shortfalls for the next year according to state economists.
South Dakota, which has a population of about 885,000 residents, also had lower unemployment levels compared to Vermont. In April, during the peak of the shutdown, the state’s unemployment rate hit 10.9 percent while Vermont’s skyrocketed to 15.6 percent. Unemployment in the Green Mountain State decreased to 8.3 percent in July, but South Dakota decreased even lower to 6.3 percent.
David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told True North about how his state let local communities, businesses and schools dictate their own COVID-19 policies instead of imposing rigid one-size-fits-all restrictions on all counties.
“I think the governor is allowing areas to respond according to what they observe in their own communities,” he said.
Restaurants are a sector in Vermont that is facing dire economic outlooks; the Green Mountain State could see 85 percent of its restaurants close due to government regulations. Gov. Scott continues to limit indoor seating capacity to 25 percent, while South Dakota has simply asked restaurants to follow CDC guidelines on the separation of tables.
“A lot of them are open. They are spacing tables out and doing the social distancing and they have signs that say wash your hands and that kind of stuff,” Owen said.
South Dakota is also taking a very different approach from Vermont to reopening schools. While Vermont is mandating masks for kids as young as age 3, in South Dakota schools are allowed to set their own policies.
“That’s up to the school districts to kind of regulate,” Owen said. “I have a 15-year-old son who is a sophomore and I think his high school is asking them to wear masks as they transit in the halls, but not in the classrooms.”
While Vermont canceled most of its state fairs and holiday parades, South Dakota has not shut down cultural events. The state recently hosted a motorcycle rally in Sturgis which drew more than 460,000 vehicles. Owen said this is a tradition that was not going to be stopped by any virus.
“The part of that that has not been as prominent in the media reports is that more than half of those people were coming anyway,” he said. “Sturgis figured, ‘Oh my god, they are coming, we may as well do what we normally do so we can manage them and our exposure and that kind of stuff.'”
The South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation has a community survey that details how South Dakotans are dealing with COVID-19 and the subsequent economic and lifestyle changes.
The survey reveals that while residents are not being forced to comply with mandates such as mask-wearing and distancing, the majority of residents are practicing these things on their own accord. This includes 85 percent are practicing distancing and 58 percent are still using masks.
One consistent trend with both states is the vast majority of deaths are among the elderly — very few residents middle-aged or lower pass away. Of South Dakota’s 165 deaths, 75 of them are over the age of 80 and just 16 are under the age of 50. Of Vermont’s 58 deaths, three are under age 50, and just 13 of them are under the age of 70.
Noem also told Fox that she worries about the impacts of the mainstream media coverage of the coronavirus.
“I worry about these kids that turn on the news and hear their parents talking about being scared they hear news anchors talking about being worried and doctors, we wonder why our kids are struggling with anxiety,” she said. “Let’s be optimistic.”
South Dakotans at one point were so appreciative of Noem’s resistance to the lockdowns that they threw her a parade in her honor.