We’re not the first to draw this comparison. Bloomberg News’s Steven Dennis has pointed it out in the past, noting how the evolution of the pandemic in the two states offers a vivid contrast in how size and population density aren’t the only factors in how damaging the pandemic will be.
Consider how the virus has affected each state since the beginning of March when you adjust for population.
Compare with .
(The data used in the above graphic are from the COVID Tracking Project and include some anomalies.)
The spread of the virus in states has varied widely from the outset, as the interactive above demonstrates. There are a lot of factors at play, including population size, timing and industry. South Dakota, for example, has a number of the sort of meat processing facilities where the virus spread quickly. New York and New Jersey were hit hard at the outset of the pandemic, before testing was common and before effective treatments for covid were well-understood.
But one factor, clearly, is how the state’s leadership and population have approached the virus. South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) has taken a laissez-faire approach to controlling the spread of the virus, celebrating her citizens’ right to refuse to wear a mask over any consistent request that they do so. As The Washington Post reported in October, there has been a correlation between the regularity with which people wear masks in a state and the spread of the virus; at that point, South Dakota was the best example of how not wearing a mask was linked to knowing someone with the virus.
Of course, that was also in part because South Dakota was home to a motorcycle rally that is believed to have helped spur the most recent surge in new coronavirus infections.
“We know we can have these events, give people information, let them protect their health but still enjoy their way of life and enjoy events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally,” Noem said last summer of the event that drew hundreds of thousands of people from across the United States. “We hope people come. Our economy benefits when people come and visit us.”
Vermont, by contrast, has been fervent in mandating that people wear masks. Those seeking to come to the state have been asked to quarantine and gatherings between people who don’t live together are banned.
There is another level of leadership which plays a role in the pandemic. At the federal level, the approach largely mirrored that of South Dakota, with states first being encouraged to compete against one another for access to protective gear and, later, receiving little pressure from the Trump administration to introduce requirements aimed at encouraging mask-wearing. Under President Donald Trump, mask-wearing became deeply politicized, with him wearing a mask only on rare occasions.
This is one area in which President Biden clearly seeks to leverage the weight of the federal government. On his first day as president, Biden signed a mandate that masks be worn on federal property. On Thursday, he signed a number of orders aimed at addressing the spread of the virus, including an expansion of data collection, mandating masks for travelers and a reduction of the out-of-pocket costs incurred by states as they combat the pandemic.
Unlike his predecessor, Biden has also repeatedly been seen wearing a mask since his inauguration. Biden has also advocated for expanding the use of the Defense Production Act to produce more material for personal protection equipment and vaccine distribution.
That, by itself, is intriguing. The Trump administration briefly explored using the U.S. Postal Service last April to send masks to every household in the country. It wasn’t implemented. Were the government to push manufacturers to make millions of high-quality masks and then distribute those to every household, it’s hard to imagine that use wouldn’t increase to at least some extent and, then, that new infections wouldn’t decrease.
It is not the case that a governor can, through sheer force of will, limit new coronavirus infections. It is not the case that a president can either. What is true, though, is that different states have taken different approaches with different results. It is true that states such as the Dakotas have seen far worse effects from the virus than states such as Vermont after having taken different approaches.
It is also the case that Biden is applying a different strategy than Trump. Regardless of politics, we can all hope that control of the pandemic improves with that change of approach by the federal government.