What South Dakota Can Teach America

As Texas and a few other states signal their intentions to reopen, here in South Dakota, it’s a puzzling thing to watch. It’s also a powerful reminder of how little we are thought of except as a passing example of good or bad policy, depending upon the speaker. But America would do well to think seriously about South Dakota, about the policies we have and have not adopted or enforced.

Dear America: Why are you so interested in the states that are “reopening”? Your control group is right here, in the center of the nation. We were never ordered to shut down, and we never did. And it turns out that we’re no more afflicted than you are. Indeed, in many ways, we are far healthier.

On Friday, NBC’s “Today Show” offered pictures of moderately full Houston restaurants, but not without clucking from the “journalists” about safety concerns. If they had come to South Dakota, they could have shown you the same pictures in November! 

My church observed the “two weeks to flatten the curve” and then began talking about when we might re-open for face-to-face, and how to do it. There were no mandates, only people having conversations about what was best, what would allow us to meet again in a way that respected those who chose to wear masks and those who didn’t. 

Accepting Imperfection

It hasn’t been perfect. Some people attended once, saw that only the back rows were masked, and didn’t return. Some people poked their heads up once every few weeks, not offended by the maskless majority, but also not keen to hang out in person just yet. Others returned to hugging and loitering after worship to chat. There have been those who looked askance, or even with anger, at others who haven’t made the same choices. And yet a couple who welcomed their first child just came back after a year’s absence, and others who have opted for the vaccine—which South Dakota has done a stellar job of distributing—have stopped wearing masks.

Most of us in South Dakota were, at least to some degree, afraid as we came back out of our homes during the spring and summer of 2020. We’d been told the virus was far more deadly than it turned out to be. As we saw our friends and neighbors catch the virus, and generally recover with no long term effects, we began to accept that it was an ugly, unfair lottery we were forced to play, whether we stayed inside or stepped out. But today we live in a climate where death seems like it should only be a remote possibility. In truth, it is always a possibility. South Dakotans know this.

Much as I celebrate each conservative who opts to move to South Dakota, I feel compelled to warn you: winter on the northern plains is no freaking joke. But unlike southern locales that shut down over a few inches of snow or “dangerously low temperatures,” we are accustomed to accepting that life has risk, and we know that all we may ever do is make the best decisions we can with the information at hand. And we are equipped to accept that our neighbors in the state, and our neighbors far away, may not approve.

When hurricane Katrina struck, South Dakota experienced an ice storm that left thousands without power—some for many weeks. Being without power in our winter climate is deadly. Yet the hardy farmers, ranchers, and other people in our rural places found solutions. Most homes have some sort of a backup system: a coworker has a woodstove and a large stock of wood behind the house; my dad has a trailer-based, diesel-powered generator retired from the state highway department in the 1960s; we have a natural gas fireplace that has a battery-sparked ignition system. We cook on our grills, even in wintertime. We can melt snow or go collect ice from a pond to melt and use for flushing toilets if we must.  

I don’t mean to suggest that the logistical challenges of Katrina were comparable to those faced by South Dakotans. I am just noting that we knew no help was coming. We knew the nation didn’t really care about us, and indeed when confronted with our disasters (flooding along the Missouri that affected much of the central plains, winter storms, or drought) it often expresses an exasperation and rolls its collective eyes, wondering why we choose to live out here in flyover country. Why do we subject ourselves to this?

The answer is complicated, and unsatisfying if you’re used to problems being solved by someone else. Don’t misunderstand: we help each other, a lot. When our little town flooded in 2019, there was a small army of volunteers with no organizational structure except that some of us had the personal cell phone numbers of members of city government and police officials. So we could check in as we worked around town. 

Self-Governing Communities

My friend Troy is a dentist. The morning of the flood, he picked me up at 5 a.m. to check on his office in the dark. Water had filled the crawlspace and was lapping at the door, but hadn’t yet gotten in. Apprehending that the water was beyond his control to mitigate, he returned home and grabbed his portable generators, fans, bottled water, and other supplies, and he and I delivered them to places all over town. By placing a single generator in one suburban backyard, three or even four homes could keep their sump pumps operational. If somebody stressed the generator a little too much and it threw the breaker, one family might send their teenage daughter to run out and reset it, and top it off with gas.

I know these stories are common across America. I know friends in other states have faced wildfires and earthquakes with similar resolve and community spirit. And South Dakota was harmed by this virus, make no mistake. We are not unscathed. My wife ran a children’s art studio that was shuttered because parents were obviously not going to send their kids to art classes while the schools were still meeting online after March. And let me tell you, sole-proprietorships with no employees and no salary for the proprietor who had been reinvesting every penny back into the business were not the sort of businesses that were helped by the various bills passed by the feds. 

But, honestly, we here in South Dakota are worried about you, America. You’ve been told to sit tight and wait for help enough times that it seems like fewer of you have made plans for “what if.” What if the help doesn’t come, or come in time? You know you aren’t supposed to drive through moving water, but what if you have to? You know you’re supposed to sit tight and wait for the PPE to arrive, but what if it doesn’t? You know the government will issue another relief check, but what if they don’t?

South Dakota’s unemployment rate returned to pre-COVID levels a few months ago. Why isn’t that national news? Reading Emerson’s “Self Reliance” used to affirm something deep in the American psyche. What has happened? And though Emerson wasn’t speaking directly of the physical habits of the self-reliant man, he was alert to the necessary continuity between independent minds and independent actions.

At the end of his once-famous essay, Emerson wrote the memorable line: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The fact is there is no one solution to a pandemic. How is that not obvious? Yet South Dakota has provided a worthy example of how to be free in the midst of a pandemic. Consider that our church didn’t do what the denomination down the street decided to do. Each member of our church decided whether to return to worship and when, if they would mask, if they would shake hands, and if they are ready to embrace their friends and neighbors.

Each business did the same. I mask up when I go to the drug store. Elderly people are shopping there or picking up prescriptions. The sign on the door politely asks it of me, and I politely oblige them. This isn’t rocket science. It’s situational intelligence. 

My friend who runs an auto shop encourages maskless entrance into his business. But he doesn’t care if you mask up anyway. There’s only one place in town I have hard feelings toward, and that’s a gas station that implemented—bizarrely—a mask requirement only a few weeks ago, long after the worst of COVID had come and gone in early November, 2020. But that’s not why I have hard feelings. It’s because the manager shouted at me when I entered with no mask . . . on the day they implemented the policy. I’ve not been back, but I will. They have delicious pizza.

About Justin Blessinger

Justin Blessinger is a Professor of English at Dakota State University.

Photo: (Photo by Chris Elise/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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