SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem on Friday told tribes to take down road checkpoints they had set up to keep out unnecessary visitors because of concerns over the coronavirus.
The Republican governor said she would take legal action if the tribes didn't remove the checkpoints in 48 hours. Two tribes — the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe — set up the checkpoints last month in an attempt to lock down their reservations amid fears infections could decimate members. The move sets up a potential legal showdown between a governor who has avoided sweeping stay-at-home orders and tribes that assert their sovereign rights allow them to control who comes on reservations.
The tribes have taken stronger action than the state because they are concerned the virus could overwhelm fragile health care systems that serve many people with underlying health problems. They are still allowing essential businesses on to the reservations and said the checkpoints were set up to keep out tourists or other visitors who could be carrying coronavirus infections.
“I request that the tribes immediately cease interfering with or regulating traffic on US and State Highways and remove all travel checkpoints,” Noem said in a statement.
Her spokeswoman Maggie Seidel said the checkpoints are illegal and the tribes should have taken them down last month after the Bureau of Indian Affairs said that tribes can close or restrict traffic on roads, but only if they get the permission of the owner of the road. A statement from the governor's office said the tribes have not consulted or gotten an agreement from the state.
But the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said that it had met with local, state and federal officials to discuss the checkpoints and will not take them down.
Tribal chairman Harold Frazier issued a statement addressing Noem, saying, “You continuing to interfere in our efforts to do what science and facts dictate seriously undermine our ability to protect everyone on the reservation.”
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for Oglala Sioux president Julian Bear Runner, said he expected the tribe to defend its rights as a sovereign nation to keep out threats to their health.
“We’d be interested in talking face to face with Governor Noem and the attorney general and whoever else is involved," he said.
The governor also held calls with Smithfield employees on Thursday and Friday as the pork plant where hundreds of employees were infected reopens after being shuttered for more than three weeks.
Noem's spokesman Ian Fury said she spent about two hours speaking with employees in total and that the governor's office had reached out to every employee at the plant.
But an organization advocating for Smithfield employees disagreed. South Dakota Voices for Justice said in a statement that employees who were invited to the call were "handpicked by corporate HR."
The organization said it was still asking Noem to meet with advocates, along with employees, “so we can work together to ensure worker safety and Smithfield’s return to producing products essential to our nation’s food supply.”
After the Department of Health held a mass testing for Smithfield employees and their family members this week in Sioux Falls, officials reported a spike in confirmed cases of coronavirus on Friday with 239 new infections.
State Epidemiologist Josh Clayton said health officials have not been able to sort out which test results came from the mass event, but said it was likely the spike in confirmed cases came from those results. A total of 203 of the confirmed cases were reported in Minnehaha County, which contains most of Sioux Falls.
Officials reported no new deaths from the virus, though 31 people have died statewide so far. Another 3,144 have tested positive, but the actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and people can be infected without feeling sick.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.