Actually, Kristi Noem Supported COVID-19 Lockdowns and Mandates

Her rhetoric doesn't match her record in the early days of the pandemic.

When Gov. Kristi Noem speaks to a national audience, she often leads by emphasizing her record on COVID-19. Here’s a snippet from a speech she gave at CPAC in Florida earlier this year:

“For those of you who don’t know, South Dakota is the only state in America that never ordered a single business or church to close. We never instituted a shelter-in-place order. We never mandated that people wear masks. We never even defined what an essential business is because I don’t believe governors have the authority to tell you your business isn’t essential… In South Dakota, I provided all the information I had to our people, and then I trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves, for their families, and in turn, their communities.”

No one can blame Noem for bragging. Why wouldn’t she? Noem became a household name with Republican primary voters last year by playing up her perceived strength during the pandemic. With perhaps one notable exception — more on that in a minute — no Republican governor in the nation has been more outwardly vocal in their opposition to lockdowns and mandates. So obviously it’s understandable that Noem, a likely 2024 presidential candidate, would make this her *issue* to separate her from the rest of the pack.

Unfortunately for Noem, she took it a little too far over the weekend at CPAC Texas. Noem used her platform to not only tout her own successes but to seemingly take a shot at Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), perhaps the most popular Republican governor in the country. The kids on Twitter might call this a “self-own.” Noem was for the lockdowns before she was against them.

House Bill 1297

I wrote previously about Gov. Noem earlier this year when she vetoed a bill to protect women’s sports. At the time, I had heard from several sources, including from legislators, that Noem’s reputation on COVID-19 was greatly exaggerated in conservative media — that she only appeared to oppose lockdowns and mandates because the Republican-led legislature forced her hand. I didn’t feel like it was necessary to attack her on it then, but I did some digging — and yes, it turns out Noem did support lockdown measures early on.

On March 30, 2020, at the request of Gov. Noem, South Dakota Rep. Lee Qualm introduced House Bill 1297, a bill that would declare a state of emergency in South Dakota and give the Secretary of Health unprecedented powers to impose mandates and lockdowns, allowing for the placement of “reasonable restrictions” on any public or private location, including a “business, park, school, or other location that promotes public gathering.” The bill is only one page long, so I’ve included it below:

Unwilling to grant the executive branch that level of unchecked power, the South Dakota House of Representatives emphatically rejected Gov. Noem’s bill, 50-17.

Executive Orders 2020-12 and 2020-13

On April 6, 2020, Gov. Noem issued two executive orders relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, which you can read here and here. Some of the provisions included:

  • Mandated adherence to CDC guidance, including social distancing.

  • A requirement that local and municipal governments restrict public gatherings of ten people or more.

  • A stay-at-home order for people over the age of 65 and people with “serious underlying medical conditions” except to “work in a critical infrastructure sector job” or to “conduct essential errands.”

  • A requirement that businesses suspend or modify business practices as recommended by CDC guidance.

  • A requirement that health care providers postpone all non-essential elective surgeries.

  • Protections for “businesses or organizations that provide essential services” as long as they have “complied with the recommended CDC guidelines.”

Maybe House Bill 1297 wouldn’t have been abused. Perhaps these executive orders were good policies at a time of incredible uncertainty. Who knows? That’s for the people of South Dakota to say. And to Gov. Noem’s credit, she did reverse course quickly. But it is true that she supported lockdowns and mandates early on, before pivoting aggressively, so it might behoove her to be more careful with her rhetoric.

Which brings us back to CPAC Texas. According to ABC News reporter Meg Cunningham, here’s what Noem said over the weekend:

“We talk about rewriting history. 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 need to issue shelter-in-places… now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. 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."

This claim is just patently ridiculous. Ultimately, Gov. Noem did shut down her state for a time. She did ban gatherings over ten people. She did effectively mandate masks by requiring businesses and local governments to adhere to CDC guidance. She did issue a shelter-in-place order. She did shut down schools. She did urge South Dakotans to download an app that tracked their movements and handed that data off to third parties. Perhaps these were all justified measures, but she should own them. Otherwise, it might look like she’s one of those Republican governors “pretending.”