In August, South Dakota famously refused to yield in the face of a global pandemic. Without restrictions, it hosted 460,000 visitors for its annual motorcycle festival. That event is now blamed for a major coronavirus surge in South Dakota and neighboring states.
Last week, South Dakota ranked second in the nation per capita for COVID-19 infections. And in Sioux Falls, one of the city's largest employers is trying to keep its workforce safe.
"Right here at this point in time, I'm probably managing double digits of people that are out because they aren't well."
Valerie Loudenback's family-owned business, Grand Prairie Foods, took the virus seriously early on. It imposed strict rules in March for mask-wearing, sanitation, social distancing, temperature checks and other health monitoring. And yet, she is seeing a spike in employees getting sick.
"I have 274 people that work here for me," Loudenback said. "That means that there are like a thousand people who are (in) some way, shape or form affected by what we do here. And I have an example of a person today who we keep on the phone with our individuals and he sounds so sick. The worst thing I could ever imagine is having to tell someone who worked here that one of our employees was gone because of coronavirus. That's what I worry about."
South Dakota's Republican Governor, Kristi Noem, continues to refuse to require masks or to impose other restrictions to combat the virus.
"My people are happy," she said. "They're happy because they're free."
Dr. Benjamin Aaker is an emergency room physician and president of the South Dakota State Medical Association. He says hospitals are seeing a surge in patients.
"It's bad right now and we are worried about getting worse," he said. "Right now we are still under capacity or right at reaching it. We just don't want to go over capacity. That would be the disaster.'"
At Grand Prairie Foods, Loudenback is also trying to prevent that from happening.
"We talk to our employees," Loudenback said. "We know who in their families is sick. We ask them every day how they feel. There's certain things that we have learned to watch for. Headaches are a super important sign. And when people don't feel good, we get them out and we talk to them and we are almost like case managers so we can bring them back and understand the whole picture in their family."