PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The sentences that Governor Kristi Noem didn’t say to news reporters Monday stood out just as much as what she did say. Maybe even more.
The second-year governor knows the emergency powers she has under decades of South Dakota law. She doesn’t want to have to use them.
Noem doesn’t have the wartime experience of governors from South Dakota’s recent past such as Bill Janklow, a Marine, or George S. Mickelson, a flier. Neither governor immediately before her, Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard, had it either.
But Noem does know how much one man’s life can mean to a family and to a small community. She left Northern State upon the sudden death of her father, Ron, and tried to help keep afloat the Arnold farm and ranch in rural Hamlin County.
Those experiences put in her a steeliness. They also underlined another lesson: Don’t show weakness in public.
During this COVID-19 crisis, Noem talks to the White House and the federal government regularly, sometimes multiple times a day. She knows many things that the chairs of county commissions and mayors simply can’t because they’re not on those calls.
At the same time, she realizes that county chairs and mayors know their citizens at a much greater depth than she ever could. That’s part of the reason for her reluctance to bring down a hammer. That’s why she used the word “should” so many times in her executive order Monday.
Noem knows she has the responsibility for an entire state’s population seeking her direction through the COVID-19 crisis, while she also tries to run the operations of a state government.
That’s a role more urgent, and more immediate, than the state’s three members of Congress have.
Noem understands all too well the political difficulty of being one of the 535 in Congress, from the eight years she served as South Dakota’s only member in the U.S. House of Representatives, and from the four years she spent as one of 70 in the state House of Representatives.
Noem as governor has immense power but doesn’t want to have to use it. She understands the limits of her enforcement authority, and how disruptive and heavy-handed it would look if she rolled out that authority.
She doesn’t want to have to send her Highway Patrol into a community. She doesn’t want to have to call upon the state attorney general’s Division of Criminal Investigation.
She doesn’t want to call out her South Dakota National Guard, whose soldiers come from those same communities.
She doesn’t want to have to phone a county sheriff and ask for action against some business owner or local official.
No governor since the times of World War II and Depression has had to lead South Dakota into such an unknown future. Perhaps Janklow came the closest, during first the American Indian Movement actions of the 1970s, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the anthrax attacks in the months that followed.
But never before has a governor had to simultaneously lead an ever-growing modern state government, with multi-billion-dollar budget so heavily dependent on the state sales tax, at a time when the economy is shutting down, stock markets are plunging, schools are closed indefinitely, people are working from home or not at all, and government offices remain dark or are closed to the public.
The state Department of Health keeps statistics and therefore does know how many hospital beds are in South Dakota. The department also has a pretty good idea of how many of those beds are available. Likewise for ventilators.
But Noem knows releasing the information into the public discussion could lead some — maybe many, especially in this age of immediate reaction through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram — to throw up their hands in frustration and exasperation, because there is such a giant imbalance between hundreds of ventilators and thousands of beds, and — as Noem said Monday — “tens of thousands” of patients who will need those services.
In conclusion, remember this: Governor Noem and state Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon know just how little they, or anyone in the world, understand right now about how dangerous COVID-19 is.
But they do know what has been proven to work in slowing the so-far unstoppable spread: Stay six feet apart, wash your hands often, wipe down counters and door knobs, avoid groups and cough into your sleeve.
And most of all, keep up hope.