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South Dakota governor says stay-at-home order would not have prevented Smithfield coronavirus outbreak

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Posted at 7:44 AM, Apr 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-15 10:00:18-04

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem argued in a press conference Tuesday that the explosive outbreak of coronavirus at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls could not have been prevented by a stay-at-home order.

As of Tuesday, 438 Smithfield workers in Sioux Falls had tested positive for coronavirus, and the plant, one of the country's largest pork processing facilities, is shut down indefinitely. But Noem said a shelter-in-place order targeted only at the surrounding community would not be coming from her office.

"I've seen some national stories written that a shelter-in-place would have prevented this outbreak at Smithfield. That is absolutely false," Noem said. The governor says that even with a broad order, the plant would have stayed open due to its status as a major food supplier. "This is a critical infrastructure job plant," she said.

Noem is one of a handful of governors who has refused to issue a stay-at-home order, rejecting a request from Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken.

"That could be a local decision that the mayor and city council could choose to do," Noem said.

TenHaken said they are likely to take that action themselves, but the legal process of changing city regulations takes almost a week, while the governor could do it immediately.

"Between our first reading on Wednesday night and a second reading next Tuesday a lot can change," TenHaken said Tuesday.

Noem has faced increasing scrutiny for not instituting orders. Instead, she has touted her state's role in evaluating hydroxychloroquine -- an antimalarial drug that is unproven to treat coronavirus and might not be safe or effective.

"We're going on offense to help every single person deal with this virus and be willing to fight it and get better and go home to their families," Noem said.

Smithfield is just one of the protein plants to have closed nationally, and the closure brings the nation "close to the edge in terms of our meat supply," CEO Kenneth Sullivan said.

"It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," he said. "These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain."