When the COVID-19 virus first crept into South Dakota on March 10, Davison County was among one of the first counties to see a positive case in the state.

Nearly a month has passed since Mitchell saw its first case of the novel coronavirus, and Davison County has held steady with a total of three positive cases as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. Comparatively, Mitchell has experienced lower positive case numbers than similar-sized communities since the COVID-19 outbreak spread into the state in early March.

Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson pointed to the concerted "social distancing" efforts that Mitchell community members have been practicing as a major factor in keeping the case numbers low. Social distancing has been a nationwide guideline recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the spreading of the virus, which calls for people to be no less than 6 feet apart from one another. But he knows those efforts have to be sustained to keep the positive cases down.

“The social distancing, limited gatherings and the business closures we have enacted so far have seemed to be working quite well, which is great,” Everson said, noting the three confirmed cases in Davison County are no longer active, meaning they have recovered. “We were one of the first cities to have a case of the virus, so we were bracing to see numbers start to move upward significantly. We’re proud the community has been taking the social distancing seriously and hope to see the effort stay strong.”

Although Minnehaha and Lincoln counties — which is where Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city, is located, along with the neighboring bedroom community of Harrisburg — account for over half of the entire state’s positive cases of the virus with a combined 192. There is a significant drop off in case numbers for the rest of larger South Dakota cities.

According to the state Department of Health’s most recent update on Tuesday, a total of 320 positive cases have been confirmed in the state. Of the 320 cases, there have been six deaths reported due to the virus and 98 recoveries. In addition, 5,948 tests have come back negative. On Monday, Gov. Kristi Noem issued an executive order that added more guidelines and restrictions for the Sioux Falls area, which called for people over the ages of 65 and those who have chronic health conditions to stay home and avoid travel as much as possible.

Beadle County, which contains the city of Huron, has been a community with a similar population to be hit with the most cases of the virus. As of Tuesday afternoon, Beadle County had a total of 21 confirmed positive cases. The next in line behind Beadle County is Yankton, which saw a total of 15 confirmed cases, followed by Brown County’s 13 and Codington County’s 12 positive cases. Aberdeen is the largest city in Brown County with roughly 29,000 people, while Watertown is the most populated city in Codington County with roughly 23,000. Brookings County is also sitting at six positive cases, while Hughes County — which is where Pierre is located — has the same amount of cases as Mitchell with three.

Mitchell's COVID-19 response compared to other cities

Considering the population of Huron sits around 13,000, Everson said it was unique to see the Beadle County area experience such a spike in case numbers before other similarly-sized communities did. Factoring in the roughly 50 miles that separate Mitchell from Huron paired with Huron’s community spread of the virus, Everson said it played a role in the decision to propose an emergency ordinance to shut down specific types of businesses in the city of Mitchell, in an effort to be proactive rather than reactive. The Mitchell City Council approved the city shutdown on March 30 during a special meeting.

“I don’t know how Huron’s numbers took off like they did, but I think it became more clear that a decent amount of people travel in Huron, because a lot of the cases were travel related,” he said. “There is still a possibility we may see more spreading and community spread, but I have hope our community members will continue doing everything they can to keep the numbers low.”

Like Mitchell and Huron, Watertown, Aberdeen and Brookings have implemented emergency ordinances that shut down specific types of businesses. However, the city of Pierre has been the least restrictive of all the first class municipalities listed above, opting to stray away from enacting an emergency ordinance that mandates the closure of businesses.

Mitchell’s shutdown specifically closed the following businesses: restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, clubs, cafes and similar places that offer on-site food or beverage sales; movie theaters and recreational facilities including pools, health clubs, athletic facilities and theaters; bowling alleys, casinos, hookah lounges and vaping lounges. The ordinance primarily allows grocery stores, large manufacturing businesses, dealerships, pharmacies, churches, hair salons, food pantries, health care and emergency facilities to remain open during the shutdown.

For City Council President Kevin McCardle, his vote to approve the city shutdown wasn’t easy, but it has been effective to stay ahead of the curve.

“Most cities are moving to enact an ordinance similar to what ours looks like, and I know some businesses aren’t happy, but at the end of the day it helps stop or reduce the spread,” McCardle said. “After Huron approved their ordinance to shut down businesses similar to what our ordinance did, they have seen numbers flatten out. I don’t ever want to see businesses have to close, but it is helping us and it will hopefully help us get things back open sooner.”

In a conference call with Gov. Noem, Everson said there were some positive figures that were provided to emphasize what type of COVID-19 response measures have been effective thus far. According to Everson, the governor’s office said large businesses like Walmart limiting the amount of people in at one time has helped reduce the numbers by about 6%, while the bar and restaurant closures are thought to have lowered the case numbers by roughly 15%. In addition, Everson said the statewide school closures have also helped reduce the virus' spread.

While the city of Mitchell took action on its own to combat the spreading of the virus, Noem issued an executive order Monday that extended more guidelines for the state and cities to follow until May 31, which includes the following:

  • South Dakotans shall know the symptoms of COVID-19, practice CDC-recommended hygiene practices and implement social distancing.

  • Businesses shall modify practices to ensure no more than 10 people are in one space.

  • Employers shall encourage staff to telework where possible, implement social distancing measures and limit travel.

  • Health care organizations shall postpone all non-essential elective surgeries.

  • Local and municipal governments shall restrict public gatherings of 10 or more people.

As some businesses in the city of Mitchell are on day five of the shutdown, Everson is hopeful the case numbers will remain low and there will be more clear signs and directions that the virus is leveling off to lift the city shutdown.

“I hope we can get things back open as soon as possible, because I know that some businesses can’t afford to be restricted in the way they do business for much longer,” Everson said. “But the bottom line is we can’t open things until we are sure we won’t have issues with the virus.”