After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed an executive order Monday offering guidance to communities, businesses, health care providers and others on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, leaders in Yankton and Vermillion wasted little time in responding.
A couple hours before its regular meeting on Monday night — but shortly after Noem announced that she signed the executive order — the Yankton City Commission called for a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the COVID-19 situation.
The Vermillion City Council also scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday afternoon.
Yankton’s special meeting considered some of the recommendations of its newly formed health board, whose members were announced Monday night. Those recommendations included strict controls on public gatherings, with restaurants and bars possibly being closed to sit-down traffic or being permitted reduced occupancy. Judging from the online reactions and questions during the livestreamed meeting, the work of the commission is difficult, sometimes unpopular but very necessary.
During Monday’s Yankton City Commission meeting, there seemed to be an underlying frustration at times in getting clear guidance from higher-ups.
Commissioner Amy Miner seemed the most blunt about it.
“There is a hunger for leadership,” she said during a meeting that was held remotely via a digital network. “People are looking to leaders to say, ‘This is what we need to do.’ There’s a lot of mixed messaging happening at the federal level, there’s some mixed messaging happening at the state level and I feel like we are left, as a municipality, to make a decision that’s right for Yankton. I don’t think we can look to anyone. I think we have to look to ourselves and listen to our constituents.”
Indeed, there seem to be varying degrees of hesitancy in some quarters about what to do.
For instance, Noem has done a generally decent job guiding the state through this crisis, but she at times hasn’t been particularly forceful in unveiling her directives. When she initially announced the closure of the state’s schools for one week, she couched it almost like a request, and that left some differing opinions about whether it was an order or an option. And when she announced Monday that she signed an executive order, that’s all she said initially without touching on the details, which subsequently came out in a press release and through reporter questioning. Also, leaving it up to the local communities to make the calls doesn’t bolster the kind of unifying, coordinated vibe that local leaders and state residents really need right now.
As for the federal message, while health professionals are offering experienced guidance, President Trump’s apparent souring on social distancing practices in favor of boosting economic cheer is worrying, especially given what we’ve seen in places like Italy. It sends a bad signal to those who might be tempted to discard wiser professional advice, and the consequences could be destructive.
Miner is correct: We need concise leadership, and for now, local governments have to do the job.
That’s what Yankton and Vermillion are doing, and so too is Sioux Falls, where officials reportedly may take things even further by proposing the closure of all non-essential businesses.
In these cases, that’s what leadership in a health crisis looks like: Bold action that could literally help local medical professionals deal with what may be coming — and even save lives.