Joe Biden must understand South Dakotans if he wants a national mask mandate

Joe Biden must understand South Dakotans if he wants a national mask mandate
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE wants to implement a national mask mandate by “working with governors and mayors.” Around ten states currently do not have at least some kind of mask mandate. Biden is not likely to get far with those states if his advisers dismissively compare resistance to wearing masks to “politicizing toilet paper,” as one member of his highly credentialed COVID-19 transition advisory board recently did. Borderline condescension like that will only make it harder to unify the country in fighting the virus. 

Take South Dakota, which has no mask mandate but desperately needs one, among other measures. Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a committed Trump supporter, has adamantly refused to bar large gatherings, reduce travel or require or recommend the wearing of masks. She even permitted the huge Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August, where T-shirts were sold to the bikers saying, “Screw Covid, I went to Sturgis,” and which may have become a superspreader event. 

Predictably, South Dakota is now a coronavirus disaster zone. The state leads the nation in deaths per capita and positivity rate (the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that are positive). The state’s positivity rate is a staggering nearly 60 percent, according to the COVID Tracking Project (which the governor’s office disputes); it is second in the rate of cases per capita.


Exhausted hospital staffs, after risking their lives to care for an unending stream of COVID-19 patients, leave their hospitals and witness unmasked gatherings of one or two hundred people. “Our staff just does not understand where that huge disconnect is coming from,” says Michael Wilde, the chief medical officer of Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls. “It’s incredibly frustrating.” Yet, a majority of South Dakotans approve of Gov. Noem’s overall job performance.  

I suspect that members of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board don’t understand the disconnect either. Board member Celine Gounder, a New York University epidemiologist and infectious disease expert, who made the toilet paper remark, thinks that expanding mask mandates is a matter of letting people know that this is “becoming the social norm.”

It’s hardly that simple. She and her colleagues should talk to a South Dakota country doctor, like Tom Dean, a physician in rural Jerauld County, which he described as “about 2,000 people spread out over 500 square miles of cows and wheat.”  

Dr. Dean, who lost both elderly parents to COVID-19, was recently interviewed by the Washington Post. He is also frustrated by the attitude of his fellow South Dakotans to the virus, but he understands where it comes from. A third-generation South Dakotan, Dr. Dean says that many South Dakotans are “stubborn and tough. They burn their own wood to get through winter. They don’t want to be watched over or babysat or told what to do.” Other state’s norms are not going to move them.

Especially when they are being told what to do by coastal elites, who predominate on Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board. The health expertise of the board is essential to developing an effective national response to the pandemic, but it’s very elitism generates political antibodies in places like South Dakota. As Harvard government professor Michael Sandel put it, “many Americans resent governing elites who claim to derive their authority from science. The resistance to wearing a mask is not about public health; it’s about politics.”

We may flatly disagree with South Dakotans’ attitude toward masks (I do), but that doesn’t relieve us of the necessity to understand their mindset and find ways to address it without condescension. 

This won’t be easy because the South Dakotan mindset is so rooted in what Dr. Dean calls a “strong independent spirit” and in the deep blue state-red state divide in America. Perhaps there should be country doctors like Tom Dean on the COVID-19 advisory board or even country music singers from hardscrabble backgrounds who understand life in rural communities like Jerauld County.

Dr. Dean is hopeful that, now that the election is over, “we can take a break from tearing each other apart. The virus is raging and there is no magic solution. It doesn’t just go away unless you stop it.” Understanding one another would be a really good start. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.