The last time I saw many of you, we didn’t know what to expect with COVID-19.
Here we are nearly 7 months later. Though there is still much to learn, we have a better sense for the common enemy we’re fighting.
Before we turn to the business of the day, I’d like to remind you of where we’ve been, where we are at today, and where we still need to go.
In South Dakota, the team at the Department of Health began to study this virus long before it ever reached our state. In January, my weekly briefings began, and the website we’ve all relied on for information for many months now, COVID.SD.GOV, was launched. On February 10th, we activated our Emergency Operations Center. And a month later, on March 10th, the state had its first known cases and reported death.
Our initial models showed a very troubling situation: we could expect as many as six hundred thousand people sick. And at our worst point, we could have up to 10,000 South Dakotans in the hospital.
In addition to these dire numbers, there were many unknowns. How was the virus spreading? Who was most likely to get it? How sick would they be? How would we manage the tens of thousands of illnesses all at once? Are there any treatments? And on and on.
Though we knew very little about the virus in those early days, here’s what we did know.
We knew that Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon and her team at the Department of Health were among the very best in the country.
We knew we had some of the finest medical professionals in the country. And we knew that, together, we were going to find a way to get through this.
We turned to the science, the facts, and the data, to get a handle on what was happening on the ground in South Dakota.
We asked the chief executives and chief medical officers at Avera, Monument, and Sanford to help us understand this virus.
We asked South Dakotans to be extra diligent about their personal hygiene and to stay home if they were sick.
For two months, we held nearly daily press conferences to share all the information we had about this virus.
In other words, as a community, we got to work.
With the help of our medical professionals and the South Dakota National Guard, we ramped up our hospital capacity. We started finding ways to get supplies distributed.
Our schools moved to an online instruction model.
Our restaurants and cafes moved to curbside pickup.
Our people social distanced and in many cases stayed home.
I remind you of all of this because, while we were working together and preparing as a state, many of other states were taking a very different approach. Some ordered their citizens to shelter in place. Ordered businesses to lock down. And churches to close. Some even sent nursing home patients who had the virus back into their facilities.
The mainstream media told us that these steps had to be taken to slow the spread of the virus. Day after day, and night after night, they insisted that every decision I was making was wrong. That I was foolish to trust my people. And I was even sillier to respect the oaths I took. They told me I should shut my state down.
As you all might imagine, these last seven months have been quite lonely at times.
But earlier this week, one very prominent national reporter sent me a note that said: Governor, if you hadn’t stood against lockdowns, we’d have no proof of just how useless they really have been.
The work of what we were doing wasn’t just me. It was the team at the Department of Health, the countless medical professionals across our state, it was teachers, law enforcement officers, grocers, small business owners, moms, dads, grandparents, you name it. It was every single one of your constituents – the people of South Dakota – that made our approach work.
We all know that the science tells us we cannot stop this virus. Our goal from day one was to slow the spread and free up hospital capacity for those who may need higher levels of care. We accomplished that.
Even with the recent uptick of cases across the Midwest, in South Dakota, only 10 percent of hospital capacity is taken up with COVID patients.
And, according to the senior leadership at Avera, Monument, and Sanford, they have greatly improved treatment. Today, most of the people who are hospitalized for COVID are not getting as sick, or staying as long, in the hospital. Which is outstanding news.
In addition to the health care side of this equation, we’re also closely monitoring the social and economic ramifications of the virus.
I recently had the chance to visit with a single mom with two little girls from another state. Her state is locked down. Those young girls have been doing 100% distance learning for months. This mom is working full-time from home. And she is struggling.
At first, she could balance her work with what she needed to do to help her kids with school. But now, it seems like this horrible situation will never end. I could hear the fatigue in her voice. I could see the anxiety on her face. She is fed up, angry, and in need of relief. My heart hurt listening to her story.
And it’s just one of many like it. From moms and dads to small business owners and their employees, I’ve had a chance to visit with a lot of Americans across this country that are tired and in need of relief.
In South Dakota, we didn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. And the results have been incredible.
We had the fewest low-income job losses of any state in the region, and we’ve already recovered those losses. Our unemployment rate is the 4th lowest in America, already back down to 4.8%. When the virus first hit, every state’s economy shrunk. But our state had the 2nd smallest losses. We closed the 2020 budget year with a $19 million dollar surplus. And our general fund revenues are up 8.7% so far this fiscal year.
Because of the path we took, a surge of people want to move to South Dakota. They want to live, work, and play in a place that respects their rights and freedom.
This news is encouraging, but many South Dakotans have still faced serious challenges. Many have struggled financially. Some have had loved ones get sick. And some of us have lost friends and family.
This body knows loss just like so many other communities across South Dakota. Bob Glanzer was a man of true integrity and someone I greatly respected. He epitomized what it means to be a true statesman. He worked tirelessly for the people of Beadle and Kingsbury counties, as well as for our entire state. Bryon and I will miss him dearly, and we extend our deepest sympathies to Penny and his entire family. I’d like to ask that we all please stand for a moment of silence to remember Bob and ALL the South Dakotans we have lost to this horrible virus.
Our new normal may be very different from the past, but don’t ever forget this one fundamental truth – the windshield is so much bigger than the rearview mirror for a reason. In South Dakota, we always confront adversity and emerge into even greater prosperity. The future – our future – is bright. Hope is in front of us. We will emerge stronger than ever before.
That brings us to today’s task. The federal government sent South Dakota $1.25 billion dollars from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone and out in D.C. asking for flexibility in how South Dakota can spend this money. But the Department of Treasury tells us that this money can only be used to cover costs – very specific costs. If you’ve not read their guidance, I urge you to do so.
My team has spent many hours talking to you and South Dakotans about Treasury’s guidance.
In order to comply with the law, these funds must be used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes many costs incurred by the state, by cities and counties, and by education institutions. We can also use the funds to help private entities if they can show they were negatively impacted by COVID. These expenses, though, had to be incurred between March 1st and December 30th of this year. And all the money has to be spent by December 30th. Not just set aside. Not obligated in a contract. Actually spent.
I’ll keep pushing Congress to provide greater flexibility, especially as it relates to this deadline. And they may come back and pass something before the upcoming election, or even in a lame duck session.
But that’s why whatever you adopt should be flexible. It should account for whether Congress acts or doesn’t act.
I think it’s important that we all recognize the tremendous work the interim appropriations committee and all the policy committees have done leading up to today. I don’t know of another issue that has been discussed by so many different committees prior to the legislature acting. Would you please join me in acknowledging those efforts?
To date, we’ve allocated funding for state and local governments to respond to the virus.
Tourism, the number two industry in the state, has taken a tremendous hit. Treasury specifically says we can use this money on tourism efforts. I think many of you have seen our ads promoting the state. As a result, our state parks have been packed with visitors from across the country who want to escape their lockdowns and explore our wide-open spaces.
Treasury allows us to spend up to $500 dollars per student to help schools get back to normal, so we set aside $75 million dollars for schools.
We’ve also suggested a framework for small business grants for those who can demonstrate a loss because of COVID. And community-based healthcare grants as well, for those taking care of some of our most vulnerable.
We set aside $100 million dollars to the re-employment insurance fund, nearly $100 million dollars for state public safety and public health officials, and more than $20 million dollars for universities and technical colleges.
Again, as you start to outline how you’d suggest we spend this money, please be sure to closely follow the guidelines that Treasury has set out. The State of South Dakota will be audited, so we must ensure we are strictly adhering to federal guidelines.
Throughout this pandemic, we have had many conference calls together. Today, I look forward to hearing from you in a formal setting while you provide your invaluable input.
I know many of you have been hard at work constructing recommendations for what we should do with the federal dollars that we have left.
It’s my hope today that we can set aside personal agendas and reject ideological fights. The people of South Dakota are counting on us to work together, to take this finite amount of money and help as many of our citizens as we can within Treasury’s parameters.
I’ll close with this.
Together, we will get through this. Together, that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s important that we remember, especially during difficult times, that we are stronger united, rather than divided.
I believe we all have the same goal in mind – making South Dakota safer, stronger, and healthier.
Today, let’s work together towards that goal.
Thank you all for your work as public servants. God bless you. And God bless the great state of South Dakota.