How Smithfield's COVID outbreak confirmed Gov. Kristi Noem's choice to keep South Dakota open

Jonathan Ellis Joe Sneve
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

As the COVID-19 pandemic took deeper root in the United States, the nation’s governors began to part ways.

They had been participating in conference calls with each other and with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which had been formed in January 2020. As the pandemic spread, the governors splintered into other groups, regionally and by political affiliation, Democrats and Republicans.

The number of governors who had not imposed mandatory closures thinned. Eventually, the calls ended, with South Dakota the only state that hadn’t imposed a statwide stay-at-home order.

On the second anniversary of COVID's arrival to the state, Gov. Kristi Noem spoke candidly to the Argus Leader about the decisions she made in the early days of the pandemic.

Politically, she started the pandemic badly hobbled. Barely a year into office, Noem was on her third chief of staff and damaged from repeated missteps, including hiring her daughter to a staff position and promoting an anti-methamphetamine campaign, "Meth. We're on it." 

More:Attorney General impeachment panel to issue cease and desist notice to Gov. Kristi Noem

Her approval rating was in the low 40s, and some Republicans privately thought she would be too damaged to run again.

But by summer 2020, she had emerged as a national hero in some quarters. By then, COVID-19 response was a deeply partisan issue, and Noem’s response was viewed in conservative circles as the best response.

There was more to it than not shutting down the state. She wasn't shy about rubbing it in the faces of her critics, of which there were many. Whether it was her decision not to issue a mask mandate, to hosting President Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore for Independence Day – with fireworks thrown in for good measure – to endorsing the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, at a time when a consensus of health experts were advocating social distancing.

Governor Kristi Noem gives the State of the State address on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.

Her profile grew exponentially, to the point she is viewed as a potential national candidate. Her most recent approval rating was in the mid-80s among GOP voters.

“It didn’t start in a good way, either,” Noem said in her interview. “The only way anyone found out who I was, was because everyone was coming after me.”

Her decisions proved highly controversial, flouted some medical advice, and she was roundly criticized. To this day, they remain controversial.

On the other hand, some conservatives in South Dakota argue she takes more credit than she should. Her initial executive orders requested business restrictions and that residents in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties 65 and older stay home.

Her administration also sponsored legislation that would have given the secretary of the Department of Health broad powers to close businesses. House Republicans killed the legislation.

Regardless, South Dakota’s government took the lightest approach of any state. For good or ill, COVID-19 turned Noem into what she is today: A governor on the precipice of re-election and a national figure among those who rejected the mainstream narrative about COVID.

More:State budget: Legislature snubs Gov. Kristi Noem, bridles power to spend federal stimulus

As COVID-19 forced state closures across the nation, Kristi Noem opens and South Dakota stood apart from the rest.

The pressure was 'unprecedented'

As the days ticked by, the group of governors who had not shut down their states got smaller. Governors, Noem said, were getting incredible pressure from mayors and other government officials to shut down their states.

“You’d see in the news that this state just closed, so we’d know our call that evening would be smaller,” she said. “But there was one group that hung in there – there were, I think, seven or eight governors for a while, but they would come on the call and say, ‘Well guys, I’ve got to let you know, I’m going to make a different decision, and I’m not going to be on these calls anymore.’

“The pressure that governors felt was probably unprecedented, because we all knew the agony of what we were going through. And if you didn’t have anyone on your team or anyone in your state backing you, and you were taking fire from all directions, I’m sure they all felt like they were in very difficult situations.”

With her own team, they spent hours on conference calls debating what should be done. Noem questioned the authority her counterparts exercised to shut down their states. She concluded that the authority didn’t exist in the state or national constitutions.

“It wasn’t necessarily that they had found something that they could stand on, they just felt that the emergency situation gave them all power,” she said. “And that was where I differed with them.”

To those around her, Noem's contrarianism got more resolute as criticism increased. As her executive team debated what constituted an “essential business,” former staffers say Noem concluded all businesses were essential for those who depended on them. She also worried about the health effects from economic loss, not just the health effects from COVID-19.

In that concern, she was joined by some experts who publicly questioned national lockdown strategies.

More news:From camping to prisons, lawmakers put mark on Gov. Noem's agenda

The joke about South Dakota is that fashion trends come to the state late, because it is so insular. But in a pandemic, that proved fortunate. New data questioned whether the original assumptions about COVID-19, which had driven lockdown strategies, were accurate. The administration was influenced by some of the experts who were questioning the original models and lockdowns. Those experts included three Stanford University professors: John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and epidemiology; Dr. Scott Atlas, a health care policy expert; and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, also a health policy expert.

While those experts and others were dismissed by the mainstream, they gave the Noem administration encouragement. They had allies, and Atlas, who would go on to serve in the Trump administration, advised the Noem administration. Atlas argued for a Covid-19 strategy that focused on protecting those most at risk from the disease, and he opposed broad lockdowns.

How Noem worked with Sioux Falls' mayor 

Noem was in constant contact with Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, who was also wrestling with how to respond. Noem sympathized with his plight, because Sioux Falls has the highest density in the state.

“I was telling him to leave it open,” she said. “We made sure he had the right information in front of him.”

TenHaken said the administration provided him with updated modeling. But experts on the television were touting far worse numbers, and it was hard to know who was right. The two talked about issuing a stay-at-home order for Sioux Falls.

“Her response was, ‘Paul, how long do you think that will last for people? If we do this in March, are we going to do this for 30 days, 60 days, six months? When is it going to be the point where we say we’re good now?’” TenHaken said. “So she was like, ‘You’ve got to be really cognizant of that, that once you turn this on, it’s going to be very hard to ever turn this off.’ It was a very great point, a good point for me to hear, still in the midst of all the chaotic numbers that we were getting, to realize that, 'Hey, the decisions we are making now are decisions we are going to have to live with for quite a long time. So we need to be very careful with those.'”

Ultimately, TenHaken chose not to issue an order, and any restrictions that existed were lifted.

"Paul picked up the phone every day," Noem said. "That’ what I think is wonderful about him."

More:Gov. Kristi Noem not pleased with workforce housing initiative that finally earned lawmaker approval

The Smithfield cluster

On April 1, Noem addressed the media at what had become a regular press conference. Asked about locking down the state, she compared stay-at-home orders to “draconian” measures used in China and Europe that were inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution.

Several days earlier, employees at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls began testing positive for COVID-19. Soon it would bloom into the nation’s largest cluster at the time, putting a national focus on Noem and her refusal to issue a stay-at-home order.

“Working in that situation, to be honest, was miserable," she said. "Everybody assumed I could make a decision to close that plant. But the federal government had already deemed it essential, so regardless of what I did, it was going to stay operating."

Communication between the company and the government was also strained.

"Their CEO at the time is not my favorite person," Noem said of Smithfield's former CEO, Kenneth Sullivan. "We had a lot of fights. He’s an emotional man and that was not good. He and I had very hard discussions, and no matter what opportunities we could have had to work together well, it didn’t go very well.

"And I think it’s specifically because they’re owned by China," she added. "He was maybe following their directions, but at the end of the day, he wasn’t living in South Dakota. He wasn’t here, and he wasn’t caring enough to pick up the phone to see what he could do that would be best."

In a statement, Smithfield noted the company's headquarters has been in Smithfield, VA since its founding in 1936, and the company said Noem's reference to China was an attempt to politicize the company, which was unfair to the 40,000 Smithfield employees, 3,400 of them in Sioux Falls.

"Smithfield responded immediately at the start of the pandemic – even before any direction from health officials was available – to implement worker safety measures," the company said. "In fact, at the time when public health officials finally released guidance for the industry, Smithfield had already implemented almost all of the recommendations."

More:Noem's COVID vaccine exemption stalls out after House pushes for stronger protections

The company also said worker safety was its priority, and that it was proud to support the nation's food supply during that period.

As COVID-19 forced state closures across the nation, Kristi Noem opens and South Dakota stood apart from the rest.

"Our CEO at the time and other members of the Smithfield management team were in Sioux Falls and other company locations on a regular basis during the peak of the pandemic crisis," the statement said.

Ultimately, Noem and TenHaken signed a letter asking Smithfield to suspend operations for two weeks to give health officials time to test and separate workers and to enact new safety protocols. The company complied.

TenHaken said he has empathy for Smithfield and the meat industry, which were dealt "hard hands" in the early days of the pandemic.

“They tried to do the right things," he said. "They were put in a tough spot, the meat packing industry period, became the scapegoat early on for this.”

The Smithfield paradox

Smithfield wasn't the only meatpacker to suspend operations, as clusters popped up in meatpacking plants around the country. The closures had a cascading effect on producers who were forced to euthanize animals when their markets disappeared.

In Sioux Falls, more than 1,000 Smithfield employees and close contacts tested positive for coronavirus in the first  month of the pandemic. Tragically, two employees died.

The episode generated national news coverage, with much of it focused on tying Noem's refusal to implement a stay-at-home order as the Smithfield outbreak spread.

But the Smithfield outbreak also proved affirming for Noem's administration. In the early days of the pandemic, some modeling had estimated case fatality rates as high as 4% — rates that would have cratered health care systems. Smithfield's cluster, like other clusters, such as those from cruise ships, provided valuable data that refuted those earlier estimates.

People enter Smithfield Foods, Inc. through a screening tent on Thursday, April 16, in Sioux Falls. The plant is currently closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Paradoxically, while Smithfield's cluster had put Noem's decisions under intense scrutiny, it proved for administration officials that not closing the state had been the correct decision.

The country's most alarming outbreak of coronavirus in April 2020 persuaded policy makers in South Dakota to keep the state open.

More:Billions in Gov. Noem's budget unsettled as time winds down on South Dakota legislative session

An ongoing crisis

Two years in though, South Dakota and the world continue to weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which spilled out of Wuhan, China in January 2020. The origins of the virus remain unknown.

In the United States, lockdown mandates and mask mandates have been largely eliminated, although the Biden administration just extended mask mandates for air travel and public transit. All states, regardless of what actions they took, saw successive waves of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

South Dakota was no different. Leaving the state open didn't protect it from a frightful wave in the fall 2020. After falling in spring 2020, the state was again hit in summer 2021 with the delta variant. That wave was barely subsiding when the omicron variant arrived in December 2021, leading to record cases and a wave of new deaths.

As of Friday, the second anniversary of the first cases reported in the state, four people a day were dying of COVID-19 over the past seven days. Nearly a million people in the United States had died with COVID, 2,853 of them from South Dakota.

After two years, it's unclear if the COVID pandemic has run its course. The long lens of history will judge whether those early-day policies were successful, but South Dakota will stand as one of the few places those policies can be measured against.