SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — On Thanksgiving Day, more than 800 empty chairs will be set up at the South Dakota Capitol, a makeshift memorial to the lives lost to the coronavirus. But the somber display is not the only event happening at the Capitol this week, with Gov. Kristi Noem two days before kicking off a Christmas celebration, complete with an appearance from Santa Claus and live music.
The two displays illustrate the contrast between those weary of the virus and ready to celebrate, and those marking the season with loss and a willingness to pull back from familiar traditions to try to slow the virus spread.
“During difficult times, it’s important to be extra thankful for what we have, for time with family, for the tremendous blessings that we have as citizens of the United States of America," Noem wrote in a column released ahead of the holiday.
The Republican governor, along with Pierre Mayor Steve Harding, moved ahead with the Christmas celebration slated for Tuesday, welcoming the public to the Tuesday lighting ceremony inside the Capitol building. The largest tree— a 26.5 foot (8 meter) Engelmann Spruce— will be decorated by the South Dakota Nurses Association.
The event requires no limit on crowds nor any requirements for masking or social distancing, in keeping with Noem's hands-off approach to the virus.
“We trust folks to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones," Noem spokesman Ian Fury said.
The state is suffering through its deadliest month of the pandemic, and Noem has faced increasing calls to issue a statewide mask mandate and to take stronger measures to prevent the spread of infections.
The state has reported 394 deaths so far during November, bringing the total coronavirus death toll to 819. There were no new deaths reported Monday, while COVID-19 hospitalizations increased to 582.
Noem has made it clear she won’t stop or discourage people from gathering for Thanksgiving. Instead, she advised people to wash hands, take extra caution for people vulnerable to serious sickness from the virus and consider keeping gatherings to small numbers.
Sen. Mike Rounds, a former governor, has urged people to take more serious precautions, including wearing a mask, though he stopped short of calling for government mandates. Even wearing masks has been the subject of hot debate. Noem has cast doubt on the efficacy of cloth face coverings and the CEO of the state's largest hospital system last week said he would not be wearing a mask after recovering from the virus.
Rounds put his stance on masks bluntly in a recent message: “Leaders wear masks."
He urged people to consider the virus deaths and consequences of gathering for holiday celebrations: “This message isn’t about Thanksgiving 2020. It’s much bigger than that. This is about how we get through Thanksgiving 2020 so we can all enjoy Thanksgivings together for years to come.”
The Thanksgiving Day memorial of empty chairs is to be set up on the Capitol grounds, with organizers asking people to participate by driving by and emphasizing that the set-up crew will be wearing masks. The South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran in America is sponsoring the display, which was organized by people from across the state, as a way to remember the loss of life and send a message on the deadliness of the virus.
“To see almost 800 chairs is pretty powerful," said Bishop Constanze Hagmaier. “They are not just numbers— they are someone’s uncle, someone’s dad, someone’s daughter.”
South Dakota's rolling average of daily new cases has leveled off over the past two weeks, according to counts from Johns Hopkins University researchers. But the number of new cases has remained high at 1,098 cases a day. Health officials reported 783 new cases on Monday.
The state has reported the nation's second-highest number of new cases per capita over the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. There were about 2,002 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people, meaning that roughly one out of every 50 people has tested positive in the last two weeks.
At a Sioux Falls news conference, Dr. Michael Wilde, the vice president medical officer for Sanford Health, encouraged people to approach the holidays mindful of those who have lost loved ones.
“I'd like to reflect on those due we've lost due to COVID or indirectly due to COVID,” he said. “The holidays can be a lonely time of remembrance, many cannot be around supportive family right now.”