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Despite Having GOP Governors, Vermont And South Dakota See Different COVID-19 Results

NOEL KING, HOST:

Governors of different states have, of course, responded differently to the pandemic. Governor Kristi Noem in South Dakota is at one end of the spectrum - no shutdowns in her state, no mask mandate. Seth Tupper, a reporter with South Dakota Public Broadcasting, wanted to understand the impact of his state's policies, so he picked another rural state, Vermont - very different policies there. And he compared the two. The outcomes are stark. Here's Seth.

SETH TUPPER, BYLINE: Governor Noem's devotion to keeping her state open has made her a celebrity in the Republican Party. She campaigned for President Trump in 17 states and touted her own record along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTI NOEM: What I did in South Dakota is what Republicans say we always believe - we just did it. We just did it. And look at what is happening in our state.

TUPPER: One thing that's happening in South Dakota is an infection rate that's among the worst in the nation at about 8,000 cases per 100,000 people. Things are different in another mostly rural state that also has less than a million people. That's Vermont, which has the nation's lowest infection rate at about 500 cases per 100,000 people. Unlike Noem, Vermont Governor Phil Scott embraced a statewide mask mandate and shutdowns. He reopened the state's economy slowly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL SCOTT: My decisions throughout this pandemic, from the closures and other mitigation steps in March and April to the methodical reopening of our economy, hospitals and schools has been based on the data, the science and the recommendations of our health experts.

TUPPER: But despite their differences, Governor Scott and Noem have one thing in common. They're both Republicans. Like their approaches to coronavirus, their state's numbers are very different. South Dakota has more than 10 times as many total deaths. Governor Noem has said for months that her top priorities are preserving individual freedom and keeping South Dakota open for business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOEM: You all know that I'm opposed to a state wide mask mandate. I've been clear about that.

TUPPER: In July, she hosted President Trump and a crowd of 7,000 for fireworks at Mount Rushmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And a very special hello to South Dakota.

(CHEERING)

TUPPER: In August, she welcomed hundreds of thousands of people to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

TUPPER: And in September, South Dakota had the nation's second-lowest unemployment rate; third-lowest, Vermont. Mark Levine is Vermont's health commissioner.

MARK LEVINE: We felt we could reopen the economy and do the appropriate public health measures for the pandemic in parallel and that you didn't have to sacrifice one for the other.

TUPPER: About the same time as the South Dakota bike rally, Vermont Governor Scott imposed a statewide mask mandate and gave away 300,000 cloth face coverings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: I'm asking you to look at the data, the real data, not just something you see on Facebook, and realize that the science is real.

TUPPER: Fast-forward to the present, after South Dakota has seen COVID hospitalizations quadruple over two months, Noem remains unconvinced by other states' experiences.

NOEM: Even mask mandates has not slowed down the spread or prevented other states from becoming hot spots.

TUPPER: The day she made those remarks, South Dakota reported almost 1,400 new coronavirus infections. The same day, Vermont reported 148, just its third day with more than 100 new infections. Governor Scott responded with new restrictions on bars, restaurants and social gatherings. For NPR News, I'm Seth Tupper in Rapid City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.