Why Mayor Paul TenHaken isn’t ready to tell Sioux Falls to stay home

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken says the city is moving closer to signing an executive order telling residents that’s it’s safer at home and outlining more expectations to help slow the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus that’s caused a worldwide pandemic. 

He made the announcement during a daily update on the local affects of the virus Friday morning, answering questions about why Sioux Falls isn’t at that point yet unlike other cities across the U.S.

“The governor has said this, and I want to re-enforce her message,” TenHaken said. “The steps we’re taking and doing right now have to be realistically sustainable.”

More: Coronavirus in South Dakota: Confirmed cases, latest news and updates

That means the city has certain moves it can make during the pandemic to try to slow the spread and prevent hospital systems from being overwhelmed, he said. 

“You can’t have a stay-at-home order for four or five months,” TenHaken said. “It’s not sustainable. It’s not realistic. It wouldn’t work. But we as a state, and specifically in Minnenhaha and Lincoln counties, are looking at when is the right time to trigger those tools to have the maximum efficacy on flattening the curve.”

But cases are continuing to grow every day, and that could continue for weeks or even months, TenHaken said. It’s estimated at least 30% of the state’s population will be infected, though not all will show symptoms, he said. 

So far, South Dakota has 187 confirmed COVID-19 cases, a number that doesn’t include tests pending in private labs or those without symptoms who are not being tested for the respiratory disease. 

More: South Dakota reports 36 confirmed coronavirus cases in biggest one-day jump

Of those, 69 have recovered, 17 have been hospitalized and two have died. About a third of the cases are confirmed in Minnehaha County, deemed one of several areas where substantial spread of the virus exists in the state. 

City officials already said this week to help slow the spread of the virus even more, they were weighing the option of extending regulations that prohibit certain businesses from having more than 10 patrons at one time. The city has also closed playgrounds and picnic shelters at public parks.

More: Coronavirus: What Avera and Sanford are doing to prepare for the surge

At the state level, Gov. Kristi Noem has urged businesses and local leaders to implement similar practices. The state has also asked all schools to be closed until May 1. Noem also announced Thursday she would ask for help from the National Guard to set up supplemental 100-bed healthcare facilities in Rapid City and Sioux Falls to help hospitals prepare for a surge in infected patients, before looking at doing something similar in smaller communities. 

More: Gov. Noem to call on National Guard to build 100-bed units in South Dakota

What would trigger a shelter-in-place order in Sioux Falls?

TenHaken emphasized the city’s response would not be knee-jerk, and outlined what that trigger point could be based on data models from health officials that are reviewed, reassessed and realigned as information changes hour by hour.

“That’s literally how fluid things are happening right now,” TenHaken said. 

More: ‘This will blow over’: In states without stay-at-home orders, Americans celebrate freedom

If city officials decide to flip the switch on a shelter-in-place order, it has to be intentional, he said. The order is something the city is considering seriously, though. 

“Despite what a lot of people may say in this country, you can do too much too soon,” TenHaken said. “Please don’t interpret that as the mayor has his head in the sand. Absolutely not.”

Avera and Sanford health officials announced this week they believe the surge could be two to four weeks away.

Because residents are practicing social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of the virus, Noem also said the peak date for the virus has been pushed back to July or even August, initially anticipated for May or June. 

What’s next, if not a shelter-in-place?

City officials are instead looking at data points like case counts and how many individuals are in hospital beds currently, which can trigger a next step in the response plan, TenHaken said. 

“We’re really close to looking at what I would call a safer-at-home order,” he said. “It wouldn’t be legally enforceable, but it would give some very firm parameters on what I expect our residents to adhere to, like a single person going to a store and things like that.”

If officials were to put a shelter-in-place order into effect now, there’s a greater risk of a major peak happening later instead of more of a slower incline, TenHaken said.

The city also has to weigh the impact a move like this could have on homelessness, mental health, evictions and other public health issues that play a role in making that call, especially as jobless claims continue to climb, he said. 

“That’s what we’re dealing with right now, public health and COVID, and the economy and public health related to that,” TenHaken said. “We’re walking this line right here, trying to do both. It’s hard.”

TenHaken said the steps taken so far to slow the spread and practice safe social distancing guidelines are working. Vehicle traffic within the city overall is down 30% so far, he said. 

Yet, there’s still too many people in grocery stores and big box stores, he said. The city may look at the option of limiting how many people can be in those locations based on percentages of max occupancy numbers in line with fire codes or other public gathering restrictions. 

If a shelter-in-place order does move forward, the city will have a six-day window to approve the ordinance from first reading to last reading and approval by the city council, he said. 

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