Gov. Kristi Noem Blasted Other Republicans For Lockdowns, But She Didn’t Entirely Oppose Them, Either

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made headlines last week for calling out fellow GOP governors on lockdowns, but her own record on the issue isn’t spotless.

Noem has consistently claimed she is the only governor in America not to order any business or church to shut down. A closer examination of her record reveals that she did support several restrictive measures in the early days of the pandemic that her office is now trying to distance itself from.

In March 2020, South Dakota Rep. Lee Qualm introduced House Bill 1297 at the request of the Governor’s Office. The bill would have granted the Secretary of Health the power to “order the closure of or place reasonable restrictions on the use of any public or private location, including a business, park, school, or other location that promotes public gathering, if reasonably necessary to slow or prevent the spread of communicable diseases during a public health emergency.”

The bill was defeated in the South Dakota legislature by a vote of 50-17, according to Jon Schweppe, the director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project. While the passage of the bill would not have resulted in Noem herself ordering business shutdowns, it would’ve granted that authority to the state’s Health Secretary via a bill requested by the governor.

South Dakota also shut down schools in March 2020 through the end of the 2019-2020 academic school year. Noem came out emphatically during the summer to insist that South Dakota’s K-12 schools would reopen in the fall, but she was whole-heartedly on board with the initial closure.

After backing the initial, short-term closure, Noem announced on April 6, 2020, that she was “recommending” that schools stay closed for the rest of the school year. “It just doesn’t make sense to bring our kids back into our school buildings this year,” she said.

In response to the governor’s apparent support for closing schools and some other lockdown measures, Noem’s communications director Ian Fury reiterated to the Daily Caller that Noem was the only governor in America not to order any business or church closed. “It is incorrect to say that she shut down schools. She suggested that they close rather than mandating it,” he said.

That isn’t how the shutdown was described at the time. “Based on the information we have from our governor, they have asked for schools to be closed for one week. Currently, the South Dakota Department of Education reports they do not know if there will be recommendations or orders to extend beyond one week,” said Dakota Valley School District superintendent Jerry Rasmussen on March 13, 2020.

Local media reported the shutdown as Noem’s doing: “South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed a state of emergency order Friday that requires K-12 schools to close beginning Monday in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” read the Sioux City Journal.

Noem also signed two executive orders that “suggested” the following of certain Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on things like social distancing and public gatherings. Executive Order 2020-12 was issued on April 6, 2020, and stated that South Dakotans shall “review and practice the recommended CDC hygiene practices designed to stop the spread of the disease COVID-19.”

The CDC began recommending the wearing of masks on April 3, 2020. Order 2020-12 also said businesses should “suspend or modify business practices as recommended by CDC guidance that involve ten or more people in an enclosed space where physical separation of at least six feet is not possible.” The order also said local governments should restrict unnecessary public gatherings of ten or more people.

Noem also issued Executive Order 2020-13 on the same date, which issued a stay-at-home order to “vulnerable individuals” in two of South Dakota’s three most populous counties. The order defines “vulnerable individuals” as anyone over the age of 65 or with underlying medical conditions. (RELATED: ‘So You Are Caving To The NCAA?’: Tucker, Noem Dispute South Dakota Bill Banning Biological Males From Women’s Sports)

Despite the public support for school shutdowns, the introduction of a bill that would give the state Health Secretary lockdown authority, and two executive orders which encourage business restrictions and a stay-at-home order, Noem continues to wrestle for the torch as America’s number one anti-lockdown politician.

Last Sunday, Noem told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas that other Republican governors were attempting to “re-write” history by arguing they always opposed lockdowns. “Let’s talk about rewriting history. We’ve got Republican Governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states, that they didn’t close their beaches, that they didn’t mandate masks, that they didn’t issue shelter-in-places,” she said. 

“Now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors,” she added. “All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit, that their first instinct is to make the right decision, that they don’t backtrack and then try to fool you into the fact that they never made the wrong decision.”

Many took the comments as an early shot across the bow against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Noem has been discussed as a possible contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but DeSantis planted his flag first as the anti-lockdown governor and has ridden that momentum to a spot at the top of some early 2024 polls.

This is the second issue on which Noem has sent mixed signals to the Republican base. In March, Noem was sent a bill from South Dakota lawmakers that would ban transgender women born as biological men from competing in womens’ sports. She sent the bill back to the legislature for “style and form” revisions, which were not adopted. (RELATED: Policy Leaders Say Gov. Noem Is Handing College Female Athletes To NCAA ‘On A Silver Platter’)

Noem claims she did not veto the transgender sports bill, but South Dakota House Speaker Spencer Gosch said her failure to certify the bill functioned as a de facto veto. Conservatives blamed her for playing politics and misleading the public on her stance. Noem continued to argue that she never technically vetoed the bill and that without her proposed changes being adopted, it would have been struck down by courts.