COVID-19 infection cluster in Sioux Falls, S.D. draws contrast with Minnesota

    Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota (left) and Gov. Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota have approached the COVID-19 pandemic differently.

    The massive COVID-19 infection cluster at Smithfield Foods — the 3,700-employee pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. — is drawing a stark contrast between South Dakota’s and Minnesota’s approach to the widening pandemic.

    The Washington Post wrote on how South Dakota is reacting to what it calls the largest COVID-19 cluster in the country, examining how a piecemeal approach to the pandemic is playing out in a largely rural state.

    Unlike Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, a first-term Republican, has not issued a stay-at-home order, arguing on April 1 that “South Dakota is not New York City.”

    She explained, in part: “Our sense of personal responsibility, our resiliency and our already sparse population density put us in a great position to manage the spread of this virus.”

    Now Noem is racing to contain the spread of a COVID-19 cluster that is threatening to disrupt the country’s food supply. Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan said on Sunday the plant would close indefinitely after more than 300 of its workers had fallen ill with COVID-19. He warned the plant’s closure along with others is bringing the country “perilously close to edge in terms of our meat supply.”

    The Smithfield plant produces around five percent of the country’s pork, supplying 130 million servings of food per week. 

    Noem continues facing pressure for a statewide stay-at-home order, even from fellow Republicans like Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, who is now seeking his council’s approval for a city-wide order.

    On Monday, she announced South Dakota would be the first state to hold a statewide hydroxychloroquine trial, the anti-malaria drug President Donald Trump has touted as helpful in treating COVID-19 patients though there is scant scientific evidence for it. Noem said on Fox News Monday “I am a lot better being on offense.” 

    Noem has argued that individuals are responsible for making healthy choices. But The Argus Leader editorial board, which is the Sioux Falls newspaper, pushed back on that approach, writing, “Passing the buck in any executive role is shaky. Doing it during a public health emergency is dangerous.”

    Like South Dakota, Minnesota also has a large rural population and significant food-processing industry, which includes major Minnesota employers like JBS in Worthington, one of the largest employers in southwestern Minnesota. 

    Walz has nonetheless pushed back against calls to relax his stay-at-home order, first issued last month and extended through May 4.

    Minnesota health officials have urged people to follow social-distancing guidelines to buy health officials time to build the necessary infrastructure to treat COVID-19 patients needing ventilators or other critical care. 

    South Dakota’s outbreak, Walz said, is concerning, and he said his administration is tracking the situation.

    Ricardo Lopez
    Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.