SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Coronavirus infections in the Dakotas are growing faster than anywhere else in the nation, fueling impassioned debates over masks and personal freedom after months in which the two states avoided the worst of the pandemic.
The argument over masks raged this week in Brookings, S.D., as the city council considered requiring face coverings in businesses. The city was forced to move its meeting to a local arena to accommodate intense interest, with many citizens speaking against it, before the mask requirement ultimately passed.
Amid the brute force of the pandemic, health experts warn that the infections must be contained before care systems are overwhelmed. North Dakota and South Dakota lead the country in new cases per capita over the last two weeks, ranking first and second respectively, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
South Dakota has also posted some of the country’s highest positivity rates for COVID-19 tests in the last week — over 17% — an indication that there are more infections than tests are catching.
Infections have been spurred by schools and universities reopening and mass gatherings like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew hundreds of thousands of people from across the country.
“It is not a surprise that South Dakota has one of the highest (COVID-19) reproduction rates in the country,” Brookings City Council member Nick Wendell said as he commented on the many people who forgo masks in public.
The Republican governors of both states have eschewed mask requirements, tapping into a spirit of independence hewn from enduring the winters and storms of the Great Plains.
The Dakotas were not always a hot spot. For months, the states appeared to avoid the worst of the pandemic, watching from afar as it raged through large cities. But spiking infection rates have fanned out across the nation, from the East Coast to the Sun Belt and now into the Midwest, where states like Iowa and Kansas are also dealing with surges.
When the case count stayed low during the spring and early summer, people grew weary of constantly taking precautions, said Dr. Benjamin Aaker, president of the South Dakota State Medical Association.
Health officials point out that the COVID-19 case increases have been among younger groups that are not hospitalized at high rates.
Over 1,000 students at the states’ four largest universities left campus to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, according to data released by the schools. The Sturgis rally also spread infections across the region, with health officials in 12 states reporting over 300 cases among people who attended the event.
But requiring masks has been controversial. In Brookings, opponents said they believed the virus threat was not as serious as portrayed and that a mandate was a violation of civil liberties.
“There are a lot of things we have in life that we have to deal with that cause death,” business owner Teresa Haldeman told the council. “We live in America, and we have certain inalienable rights.”