The Huron Daily Plainsman, April 17

Can Noem issue a shelter-in-place?

The social media call has become nearly deafening, so much so that it’s bled into her daily press briefings ... Why hasn’t Gov. Kristi Noem ordered a shelter-in-place?

From the early points of the COVID-19 virus in the state of South Dakota, Noem has expressed that she doesn’t have the direct power to make such an order. Her office put forth a number of temporary bills on veto day, and the two that got rejected by the legislature intended to put more power in the hands of counties and in the hands of the Department of Health, specifically in the case of a Public Health Emergency.

So what is the truth behind the powers the governor has?

To first understand how powers are divided within the state’s original constitution, one has to consider the era when the constitution was written.

The state placed the lion’s share of governing power over local population over local government. The direct section in the original state constitution is Article 9, Section 2, specifically this paragraph:

“A chartered governmental unit may exercise any legislative power or perform any function not denied by its charter, the Constitution or the general laws of the state. The charter may provide for any form of executive, legislative and administrative structure which shall be of superior authority to statute, provided that the legislative body so established be chosen by popular election and that the administrative proceedings be subject to judicial review.”

To put that into common language, cities and counties were to create a charter when they were founded. That charter gave them all the powers to govern their own residents, private and business. Local authority was the preferred way to distribute governing power so as to avoid a state government that wielded too much power over the state.

Then what about specifically in a crisis or disaster moment? South Dakota has a codified law for that, specifically, 34-48A-5. That statute lays out the power of the governor in times of disaster or emergency.

The specific area in question that would allow Gov. Noem to act, which perhaps she’s not utilized at this time, is section 5. Here’s the exact wording of that section:

“May control the ingress and egress in a designated disaster or emergency area, the movement of vehicles upon highways within the area, the movement of persons within the area, and the occupancy of premises within the area”

So what exactly does that mean?

Once a disaster area or emergency area has been declared — President Trump declared South Dakota a disaster area due to COVID-19 on April 5 — the governor can order travel restrictions and restrict the amount of people in a business or direct people not to be in a particular business.

What is missing from that line, and the entire rest of the emergency powers of the governor, is any directive giving power to the governor to order residents in their homes, even if for their own safety. This was what the governor hoped to do by expanding the depth of a public health emergency, which is applicable to just one person or one group of people, not the entire state as presently written into state law.

Expanding the ability of the Department of Health to utilize public health emergency powers would have allowed for stay-at-home directives to potentially come through that department, but the legislature rejected that temporary expansion of powers.

Right now, those calling upon the governor for a shelter-in-place or a stay-at-home order really ought to look to their local municipal or county governments.

Within South Dakota, that’s where those orders come from, and for some counties, those ordinances have been in place since March 22.

Only three states and Puerto Rico acted sooner among the United States and its territories.


Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, April 16

In case you miss it

I miss spring.

Of all the things that have been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the last month (and it sure seems a lot longer than that), I think the loss of spring bugs me the most. OK, I realize we’re only about a month into the season, the tree branches are still bare and I’m still wearing a parka on some days, but really, spring — or, at least, my usual springtime — never arrived this year.

At our newspaper, a lot of what we do and deal with is dictated by the calendar. So much changes with the seasons, and after a while, those changes serve as my best measure of the flow of time.

However, COVID-19 has wiped out almost every marker and signpost that tells me, as a journalist in Yankton, that it’s spring. For instance, we should have had a city election last Tuesday, but the pandemic has pushed it to June. Thus, Tuesday was just another day in a dreary blur of faceless days and weeks as we stumble through this unfamiliar, unmarked territory.

So, yeah, I really miss spring …

I miss taking photos at school concerts. By now, those programs would be winding down as the school year inched towards its end.

Our sports department certainly misses the track season. Back when I was covering sports, spring felt so liberating because track meant more time outdoors and a set schedule of annual meets to chart a course through the busy season. But this year, there are no track meets, no days in the warming sun and no performances to catch, and there’s no Press & Dakotan Leader Board to study. (To be sure, the sports staff also misses the baseball, tennis and golf seasons.)

I’ll probably miss shooting photos at the Yankton High School prom’s grand march, which was to happen next weekend. It was always basic, repetitive shooting, but at least it was a sign that the end of the school year was within sight. (I wonder if the students and teachers have also lost that same sense of progression. It just feels like the world has been frozen in place since mid-March.)

I miss the crowds, even though I don’t miss dealing with the crowds.

I miss shooting photos of plays.

I miss regular photo assignments with actual people. This week, I shot a general set-up photo involving another person for the first time in at least a month, and I really can’t describe how pleasant it was to interact — albeit with six-foot distancing — with others again.

I miss the growing tide of press releases we would normally be getting for upcoming spring and summer events. This week’s cancellation of Czech Days made it the latest victim of a creeping uncertainty that has devoured the spring and is now encroaching on summer.

I miss having a variety of stories in any given edition of the P&D that aren’t somehow all tied to the same underlying theme …

Of course, we all miss things these days — from church to shopping trips to social gatherings — that we took for granted not too long ago. Even normal, everyday activities have been lost or altered.

For instance, I miss going into a store without feeling like I’m walking into a minefield.

In fact, I miss going into a store and seeing every shelf stocked.

I miss listening to baseball games on the radio.

I miss going into fast-food places to casually grab a bite to eat. Most eateries now limit you to the drive-thru, which isn’t the same. One particular place in town makes you work off an automated board, so you don’t get to talk to a real person. That adds a lot of pressure.

I miss movie theaters.

I can’t say I miss NOT washing my hands, but I do miss not feeling like I have to thoroughly scrub them as if my life depended on it.

I miss the concept of self-isolation being considered a bad thing.

I miss the New York Mets — which is also a sentiment expressed in “Avengers: Endgame,” a coincidence that feels somewhat unsettling right now.

I actually miss the waves of bustling traffic on Yankton’s streets.

I miss not having dreams about viruses and death tolls, which I get now all the time.

I miss the way things were.

I miss all that and more.

Some day — whenever that day is — this pandemic will subside and the threat will be gone. We’ll piece the world back together, learn from it, perhaps grieve over it, and we will definitely be ready to move on from it. And I can guarantee one thing: I will not miss any of this at all.


Black Hills Pioneer, Spearfish, April 18

Test everyone

If you take the $2.2 trillion that Congress has authorized as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and divide it by the nation’s population (330 million Americans), that comes out to roughly $6,600 per man, woman and child.

That per-capita figure is likely to grow as Congress considers more relief measures when it returns to work later this month.

All that borrowed money, which will be tacked onto the national debt, is to deal with government-imposed symptoms of the pandemic — layoffs, unemployment claims, industry bailouts, shuttered businesses, etc. — arising from public health orders restricting day-to-day activities to the bare essentials.

It’s a self-imposed economic recession that could leave up to a quarter of the nation’s workforce unemployed for an extended period. These policy decisions were made as a last resort because the federal government failed — spectacularly — to make aggressive testing its No. 1 priority as soon as epidemiologists realized the virus would infiltrate the United States.

Obviously that didn’t happen, leaving us in an open-ended economic crisis.

Common sense has left the building, and we forgot how cool he was.

This virus isn’t going away anytime soon. Not until we have a vaccine, which — best case — is a year away. We can’t suffer like this for that long. It will wreck the country. We have to change directions ASAP.

We need to ramp up testing now. Spectacularly so.

The consequence of a lack of testing in the U.S. has been that governments have to shut down everything in order to keep everybody away from each other.

“Social distancing” is a logical response, under those circumstances, in order to keep from overwhelming the health care system. Citizens have to do their part by following those rules, and nothing we’re saying here is intended to undermine that. In other words, stay home. It’s our best shot right now.

But it’s a very costly, short-term solution.

Authorities have doled out the tests in a miserly manner because of short supplies. We can’t blame local authorities for setting priorities in testing under these circumstances.

Other countries are taking a far more aggressive approach: In Germany, they’re testing 500,000 people a week, and they’re looking to ramp up to 200,000 per day. England is aiming for 25,000 people a day by the end of April. Sweden and Austria are at 15,000 tests per day.

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that 2 million tests have been administered. But that’s only .61% of the U.S. population. Other counties are doing better. Newsweek reports that Italy has administered tests to approximately 1.4% of its population, and South Korea, which flattened its infection curve with widespread testing, has reached .9 percent of its population.

We can do better. Trump must throw the full weight of the federal government at this problem and direct every public, private and university laboratory in the nation to do nothing other than produce test kits to detect both infection and antibodies in every American. Within weeks, we could get almost everyone back to work quickly without endlessly throwing money at the problems the lack of testing has created.

Mass testing could allow us to quarantine people who actually have the virus or who’ve been in contact with people carrying it.

That would prevent infected people who don’t yet show symptoms from giving it to others. This country turned a theoretical technology into reality to end WWII. We can test everyone within 2-4 weeks with a singular focus on doing so.

What would such a testing program cost? We have no idea, but if it can be done for less than $6,600 per person, it proves how wrong-headed the current response has been.

Some of our leaders think widespread testing is unnecessary. How they think certain parts of the country can be “reopened” without it in the coming weeks is beyond us. The New York Times cited federal projections that lifting shelter-in-place order after 30 days will lead to a summer infection spike. We’re on a treadmill we can’t get off until at the earliest April 2021 without widespread testing.

Let’s put this in terms that most people can relate to.

If we have universal testing, we have football in the fall.

If we don’t, we won’t.

It’s not too late.