PIERRE, S.D. — In a gilded statehouse chamber packed with a joint session of the Legislature, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem delivered a rousing victory lap in her State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 12, in Pierre, largely avoiding any mention of the close-to-nation-topping COVID-19 fatalities that have rocked the state over the last year and casting her hands-off approach to managing the pandemic as a boon for the state's economy and national profile.
Outlining her policy objectives for the upcoming legislative session, which kicked off in Pierre on Tuesday, Noem called on banning certain abortions and introduced a new civics and history curricula she says will be written by her own staff.
But the speech was also a political treatise, pitting her limited response to the deadly virus against the rest of the country's.
"For those who have spent the last nine months shut down or locked up in other states, South Dakota is open," said Noem. "We have stayed open the entire time. And that's how we will operate for as long as I am governor."
Only obliquely at the outset of her hour-plus delivery on Tuesday did Noem, a Republican firebrand who has nationally carried the flag for bucking epidemiologists' recommendations by opposing calls to impose a statewide mask mandate, give glancing mention to "the adversity" caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.
"All of us in this room, who work for them, respect the rights of our people to live their lives," said Noem, in reading from the prepared remarks.
As of Tuesday, South Dakota's Department of Health has reported just shy of 1,600 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19. According to health tracker Statista.com, South Dakota rates the fifth highest in the nation with 179 deaths per 100,000 persons, trailing only states in the Northeast who endured the first wave of the virus nearly a year ago.
A laissez-faire attitude prevailed among many legislators in the chamber on Tuesday, as many sat unmasked, leading to worries that have mounted prior to Tuesday that the next two months might create a super-spreader event in the state.
Most of those members wearing facial coverings comprised the small Democratic contingent (a total of 11 out of 105 legislators), who also sat behind Plexiglas shields with tubs of disinfecting wipes.
Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission, told the Forum News Service he watched the speech from his office in the Capitol to avoid what he called the "extremely crowded" joint session.
"I would say if this (Noem's speech) is a victory lap, then it's premature," said Heinert. "We still have lots of people who are getting sick and being admitted to hospitals and sadly dying."
While formal protocols including mask recommendations in both chambers will be voted on later this week, it is largely expected that the governor and her staff, on the Capitol's second floor, will largely go mask-less.
But Noem anecdotally noted many newcomers to South Dakota have found political comfort in her message.
"People with big-city salaries are moving to small-town South Dakota," said Noem.
The next 10 weeks may also mark an opportunity for the Republican governor to more frequently repeat to state lawmakers a message she has hewn before national audiences.
On Tuesday morning, Noem spoke to "Fox & Friends," a cable TV morning show, appearing beside former Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy, Duffy's wife, Rachel, and youngest child, Valentina, to announce a bill to prohibit abortions in the event of a diagnosis of Down syndrome.
At the end of the interview, she recounted the family venturing out to eat at a restaurant in Pierre on Monday evening and expressing relief at the absence of health protocols.
"It's been very cool to be in South Dakota with Gov. Noem," said Duffy in the interview. "The kids were amazed they got to go to a restaurant without a mask."