Editorial: Biggest constant during COVID-19 crisis has been lack of leadership

Mayor Paul TenHaken and Gov. Kristi Noem survey the damage done to businesses after Sunday's protests turned violent on Monday, June 1, 2020 at Riddle's Jewelry in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The definition of insanity, as the aphorism goes, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Forgive us here at the Argus Leader Editorial Board if it feels like we’re going insane.

Time and again, we have urged state and city leaders – most notably Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken – to take stronger action in response to a COVID-19 crisis that has led to 34,000 cases and 333 deaths in South Dakota, a state that leads the nation in current per capita hospitalizations.

From the day when the first case was confirmed in March to our predicament seven months later, with stressed hospitals entering a critical fall and winter, calls for firm and consistent leadership have largely gone ignored in favor of the governor’s “positive pants” rhetoric and anti-mask talking points.

In the interest of accuracy, we’re not actually going insane. We’re just frustrated as hell.

Rather than beat our heads against the wall yet again, here’s a collection of appeals and admonitions from our previous editorials during this pandemic, to show you how little has changed.

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Leadership and clear messages are needed, as well as a firm hand. Such emergencies are well-suited for governors to take the reins and serve various roles – drill sergeant, information officer, calming presence – rather than relying on Washington D.C. for guidance or blame. (March 12)

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President Donald Trump speaks during a fundraiser for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kristi Noem, left, in Sioux Falls, S.D., Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The most critical role of a governor in perilous times is to protect state citizens from harm.

That can mean economic or social hardship in many cases, but in our current reality with the COVID-19 outbreak, it means keeping people from dying. It means taking strong and mandatory measures that reflect the severity of the threat. (March 21)

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Look around you. Learn from other countries and states. The chances of community spread occurring in South Dakota is probably 100 percent, and it’s likely that the state has hundreds or thousands of cases right now that we don’t know about. Can Noem possibly base emergency measures on numbers that she admits are incomplete, or is she trying to avoid some sort of statewide panic? (March 21)

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Passing the buck in any executive role is shaky. Doing it during a public health emergency is dangerous. When Noem talked Friday about people who “won’t get better,” she meant people who will die.

And so we’ll continue to push back, demanding that the governor look outside her bubble at what is happening around her. If she doesn’t want to listen to us, there are plenty of other voices. (April 4)

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Mayor Paul TenHaken says that the current city coronavirus data is "nothing to be proud of" at a press conference on Monday, October 19, at City Hall in Sioux Falls.

We need to try to stay ahead of the virus, if that’s possible, to allow for a time when testing allows health officials to identify carriers, isolate them and do contact tracing. That will allow a gradual easing of social restrictions, not merely the ebb and flow of a chart based on speculative numbers.

Even those who worship at the altar of “personal liberties” want to see strong leadership when lives are at stake. They want messages of hope, sure, but also admonitions of responsibility and sacrifice. They want to hear what the plan is.

It is too late to look back at preventative measures as a softening blow to our state. But it’s not yet too late to use every power at our disposal to fight back against an invisible enemy and win. (April 4)

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We agree that it’s possible to phase in more “normal” flow of social and business structures, such as opening parks and some work spaces with proper safety guidelines. But these steps should include standardized procedures for implementation and monitoring, not a vague series of frequently asked questions.

In order to live with the virus in our midst, we need to continue to improve our understanding of how to reduce infections and protect the people and places that are most vulnerable. (May 1)

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People wait in their vehicles for a COVID-19 test on Wednesday, September 23, at the Avera Family Health Center in Sioux Falls.

The need to craft a continuing public-private partnership between state health officials and our major health systems is paramount, particularly as we look to avoid anticipated viral flareups in the coming fall and winter months. That doesn’t mean more high-profile collaborative panders to the White House such as the hastily conceived statewide hydroxychloroquine trial. There are too many unknowns still to be uncovered about COVID-19; we need to prepare for a full range of outcomes. (May 1)

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The pandemic doesn’t present a simple tug-of-war between the economy and public health. The two are intertwined; neither can thrive without the other. People will not flock to restaurants, malls and sporting events unless they have a degree of confidence that they are not jeopardizing their health or that of their loved ones. (May 1)

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With each passing hour we get new information – or updated and clarifications from previous alerts. Remember when masks weren’t necessary, or that the virus couldn’t spread asymptomatically? Since infectious disease experts are still learning about the strengths and weaknesses of COVID-19, it’s a good bet that the rest of us don’t have it figured out. Be flexible and open-minded. It’s a good bet that more surprises are on the way. (June 19)

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South Dakota Governor-elect Kristi Noem waves as she is recognized by President Donald Trump during a ceremony to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

America has become even more polarized along partisan lines during the pandemic, which is to say there’s a cavernous divide. Wearing masks is a political statement for some, while others make a point by leaving them off. Lockdowns are derided as a liberal tool to “control” people and ruin the economy, while fewer restrictions embraces the ideals of “freedom” and individual responsibility.

To families who have seen the ravages of COVID-19, such vitriol on social media must seem childish indeed. There is nothing political about formulating the best response to a virus that has killed nearly 120,000 people in the United States and is still part of our daily lives. (June 19)

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Personal responsibility is important, as we see every day in the adjusted routines of those who take social distancing seriously. But it’s tough to be personally vigilant when messaging from state and city leaders is inconsistent. Does it make sense for a business to be restricted in one city yet still operative just a few miles away?

That’s the result when state directives are loose and optional, forcing municipalities to make their own way. That doesn’t mean treating each city the same; many states instituted tiered systems based on the data. It means being willing to make unpopular decisions to perform the most important and elemental of government functions: keeping citizens safe. (June 19)

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From the governor’s perspective, though, anything that erodes the carefully nurtured narrative of South Dakota as anti-lockdown success story, with Noem as conquering hero, is “fake news” to be railed against, or simply hidden from view. (Sept. 10)

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Sanford healthcare workers provide COVID-19 testing on Tuesday, October 13, at the Sanford Fieldhouse in Sioux Falls.

Though many citizens are showing responsibility by wearing face coverings when appropriate, many others are not. It doesn’t help that the state’s chief executive has refused to wear a mask in public and has at times questioned their effectiveness.

So it’s up to city and county officials to be the adults in the room. TenHaken noted in August that a mask mandate could be in the cards if cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, as they have. What is his reason for not taking such steps right now? (Oct. 2)

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For one final remembrance, here’s a passage from our March 12 editorial – the day the first positive case in South Dakota was confirmed – that could have been written this week.

The citizens of this state have shown time and again that they can stare down adversity, even as everyday lives are altered. But stable leadership and reliable information are paramount.

As the latest threat looms, will those in power provide bold initiative or cross their fingers that everything will turn out OK?

The answer to that question becomes more urgent by the hour.

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