By Manny Fernandez and Jack Healy
In one pandemic reality, restaurants are packed. There are no coronavirus limits at college-town bars. No social-distancing dots speckling the floor. Some people are wearing masks, but even a weak proposal to make it a requirement in one city prompted an outcry. Welcome to South Dakota.
In another, hundreds of miles to the south, much of life is shut down. No dining inside restaurants. Capacity limits at Walmart. Shuttered bookstores, museums, hair salons, parks. A mask-wearing culture so widespread that someone put one on an old statue. Welcome to New Mexico.
This is the view from America’s two discordant, dissonant pandemic realities.
The pandemic and the nation’s disjointed response have taken the notion of two Americas to a new extreme. As cases of the virus in the United States on Friday surpassed 196,000, more than on any other day of the pandemic, the daily routines of millions of Americans are now shaped by their ZIP codes and governors and beliefs about the virus: Do they wear masks? Go to school in person or online? Eat out? Get exposed to the virus?
Hospitalization rates in South Dakota have been the highest in the nation, but a conservative frontier philosophy dominates the state’s approach. Some towns, stores and school districts require masks or social distancing, but, as a whole, South Dakota has the fewest restrictions of any state, with neither a mask mandate nor significant limits on businesses. Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, has called that distinction a badge of freedom and criticized restrictions as ineffective and economically destructive.
“You wouldn’t even know there’s a pandemic going on,” said Heidi Haugan, a mother of four young children in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s biggest city.