Top 10 stories of 2020: COVID-19 and everything else

Pandemic dominated daily lives and local headlines

Signage at the Corn Palace in December advises visitors about the city's mask ordinance for indoor spaces. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

Coronavirus. COVID-19. A pandemic.

At the start of 2020, those words were unknown to most South Dakotans. But 12 months later, the crisis related to COVID-19 has dominated our lives. It is the Mitchell Republic’s story of the year for 2020.

More than 95,000 people in South Dakota have contracted the virus — 1 in 10 residents in the state — and as of Dec. 22, 1,381 deaths related to COVID-19 in South Dakota have been recorded. More than 800 of those deaths involved South Dakotans age 80 or older and 1,100-plus were individuals 70 and older. Three people in their 20s died from COVID-19 this year. More than 80 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 have occurred since September.

More than 5,000 people have been hospitalized in their battle with the disease, affecting every subset of the population. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been impacted and families have not been able to visit family living there due to the threat of the virus.

In Mitchell, measures aimed at public health were controversial. Mitchell had a 25-day shutdown in April mandated specific types of businesses — primarily restaurants, bars and gyms, — to close or implement takeout methods. In November, the city passed a hotly debated ordinance to require masks indoors. After the Mitchell School District had implemented a mask mandate for students, a man’s removal by police from a school board meeting went viral around the country.


South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during a Local Government COVID Recovery Fund briefing on June 24 in Huron. In the background is Beadle County Sheriff Doug Solem. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Gov. Kristi Noem has been defiant about not implementing measures restricting businesses or requiring a mask rules statewide. She has said the science about masking was mixed and said it’s on citizens to make their own decisions to keep their families safe.

South Dakota has drawn criticism nationally for the hands-off approach, as the state has frequently ranked highly in national rankings for COVID-19 cases on a per capita basis. The White House Coronavirus Task Force has repeatedly deemed the state a red zone, and national epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who spent some of his childhood in Mitchell, condemned the state’s lack of leadership against COVID-19.

As the year closes, the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine brings hope into 2021, as South Dakota has administered more than 8,000 doses.

Here’s a look at the rest of the top-10 stories for 2020:

2. AG Ravnsborg at wheel in fatal crash

South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was involved in a fatal crash where he hit and killed a man on the side of the road on Sept. 12. Joseph Boever, 55, of Highmore, was killed in the crash.

More than 100 days after the crash and the death, no decision has been announced on whether Ravnsborg will be charged in the matter.


Ravnsborg, who was returning to Pierre from a Republican Party event in Redfield when the crash occurred, issued a statement saying he was "shocked and filled with sorrow" following the crash and was fully cooperating with the investigation. He later said that he thought he hit a deer and investigators have said that Ravnsborg was distracted when he veered to the shoulder of the road and hit Boever but haven’t said how he was distracted.

smithfield pork plant closed.jpg
Danger tape is stretched across the parking lot entrances to the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, April 17. Smithfield temporarily closed the plant on April 15 after an coronavirus outbreak among its 3,700-strong workforce. (Jeremy Fugleberg/Forum News Service)

3. Virus outbreaks stun meat production line

Coronavirus clusters at meat processing plants in South Dakota were involved in the spread of hundreds of cases of COVID-19 and set off a crippling chain reaction for farmers.

In the case of Smithfield Foods’ outbreak in Sioux Falls, where 5% of the nation’s pork is produced, 1,294 workers contracted the virus and four people died. The plant was closed from April 12 to May 6, leaving many pork producers few places to send their hogs. Local meat markets tried to fit in as many pigs as they could, but many farmers were forced to euthanize pigs with nowhere to send them.

The outbreaks were not limited to Smithfield, Demkota Ranch Beef in Aberdeen, Dakota Provisions in Huron and Jack Link’s in Alpena combined for more than 300 cases, including more than 110 at Jack Link’s and at least one death.

Mitchell High School students are dismissed for the day in September, back to school after missing the end of the year in the spring due to COVID-19. (Matt Gade / Republic)


4. School, sports shut down and return for the fall

Six days after South Dakota had its first COVID-19 case, Noem requested the state’s K-12 schools close on March 16. That ended up running through the remainder of the school year, forcing students, parents and educators into adapting to going to school virtually. With that, extracurricular activities and sports were also sidelined.

Graduations were held online, moved outside or to later in the summer. Wave parades allowing students to see their teachers before summer became commonplace in small towns.

But schools made a commitment to make sure they were back in the classroom for the fall, making efforts to socially distance, separate classes and implement masks. Statewide, more than 9,000 COVID-19 cases have been related to schools, including 2,300 involving staff. On the state’s college campuses, another 3,100-plus cases have been confirmed.

Masks and social distancing were required for the Dakota Wesleyan University graduation ceremony on Sept. 27 at the Corn Palace. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

5. Economy churns on for SD

COVID-19 was difficult on the South Dakota economy but the state was able to weather the storm, in part because of a lack of a statewide shutdown. On a quarterly basis, South Dakota was one of the top states throughout 2020 for gross domestic product by state. Small towns saw increases in sales tax revenue with travel discouraged.

Noem’s position on the economy and a lack of a statewide shutdown helped the state’s economy bounce back from the onset of the pandemic sooner, allowing small towns a chance to carry through the pandemic. She also credited the state’s low-tax structure as being able to help businesses. The state’s sales and use tax revenues for the end of the fiscal year in June finished nearly 5% ahead of the same point in 2019. In the first five months of fiscal year 2021, South Dakota is 8.1% ahead of last year on a year-to-date basis.

Businesses received $722 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans to help sustain themselves, and $323 million has been paid out in unemployment benefits since mid-March.


6. MADC receives donation for housing

The year 2020 in Mitchell started with Avera’s Jan. 9 announcement that it was donating more than 20 acres to the Mitchell Area Development Corporation for affordable housing, which would eventually add as many as 90 homes over the next 10 years on the east edge of Mitchell.

But the plan got pushback from neighbors who argued it would impact their home values and wouldn’t fit in with the neighborhood. A tax-increment financing district to fund $4.1 million in infrastructure for the project was sidelined in May at MADC’s request, with concerns about not being able to start construction amid the pandemic. The project was also sidelined after MADC Executive Director Mark Vaux was asked to resign as part of leadership shakeup at the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce.

President Donald Trump spoke at Mount Rushmore on Friday, July 3, as part of a national fireworks celebration. (Matt Gade / Republic)

7. Trump visits Mount Rushmore

President Donald Trump had a lot on his mind in 2020. That included the fireworks at Mount Rushmore, which were held July 3 for the first time in more than a decade, with the president in attendance. Trump said Noem had called him about making the fireworks possible and getting Department of Interior approval.

A crowd of 7,500 people gathered at the national monument for the celebration near Keystone, in which Trump vowed to preserve the country’s independence and protect the country’s historic statues and monuments. It was the sixth visit to Rushmore by a sitting U.S. president, and he was greeted by protestors in the Black Hills, as well.

“Each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world and it will soon be greater than ever before,” Trump said. “Our founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of liberty, justice and prosperity.”


People sign a poster sharing condolences for 6-year-old Amyah Barna as a balloon release was held at Gainer Park on April 25 in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

8. Woman receives 8 years in prison for death of daughter in house fire

The death of a Mitchell girl in a house fire was among the most tragic events to take place in 2020.

Amyah Barna, 6, died in an April 23 fire, while her two siblings were pulled from the burning house at the time. The mother of the children, Ayla Barna, had left the children home alone at the time the fire started. She told the Mitchell Republic the day after the fire that she accepted the responsibility for what happened and would have to live with the death of her daughter forever. Investigators said the fire was caused by a cigarette lighter.

In December, Barna was sentenced to eight years in prison on child abuse and cruelty to a minor less than 7 years old.

9. Voters support Republicans and marjiuana in 2020 election

South Dakota voters overwhelmingly supported Republicans in the 2020 general election, putting their electoral votes behind President Donald Trump and returning Senator Mike Rounds and Representative Dusty Johnson to Congress.

But voters also provided a surprise by voting for a constitutional amendment for recreational marijuana, in addition to approving a medical marijuana measure, with South Dakota becoming the first state to approve both measures in the same election. (The constitutional amendment is being challenged in court.)

One of the largest political stories of the year also involved Noem, who bolstered her national political profile in 2020. She was a notable speaker at the Republican National Convention and campaigned for Republicans around the country, most notably for Trump.

10. GF&P ends pheasant survey

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks’ decision to end the annual preseason pheasant brood count survey, halting a 70-year tradition of one of the most anticipated reports on wildlife in the state. The survey generally included a pheasant-per-mile index for regions around the state and a statewide snapshot of bird population.


GF&P officials said the report has no impact on what they called the “biological side” of pheasant hunting, meaning how they set bird limits or season dates. GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler, who has since retired, said there was also a correlation between the statewide pheasant per mile index and the numbers of pheasant licenses sold in the state, which becomes concerning when the index is lower.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at
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