Thousands of spectators joined at South Dakota’s annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup Friday, despite seeing record-high surges in the state for positive coronavirus cases, rising to become a new epicenter for the deadly disease.
The event—which is similar to Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day celebrations, according to the Rapid City Journal—typically brings in nineteen thousand to twenty thousand people, but participants said the crowds looked bigger this year than in previous years.
Gov. Kristi Noem was featured at the roundup, closing out a record-setting week with nearly twenty-nine thousand new positive tests in the state in just seven days as of Sunday, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. There were 412 new coronavirus cases reported Sunday and 1,370 tests, throwing the positivity rate at almost 30 percent, as noted by the Journal.
As of Monday afternoon, there are 3,828 active coronavirus cases in South Dakota, with 209 hospitalizations and 218 deaths, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. There have been a whopping total of 21,738 positive coronavirus cases reported in the state.
Minnehaha county is home to the most coronavirus cases in the state at 6,691, with Pennington country—where Mount Rushmore is located—trailing behind at 2,328 cases.
Noem is one of the few governors to refuse to issue a stay-at-home order, and at one point said that it was up to the people “to exercise their right to work, to worship and to play. Or to even stay at home.” The first-term Republican was praised by conservative pundits for the hands-off approach to handling the coronavirus, while local officials and medical professionals pushed for the governor to implement such restrictions.
“I won’t be changing my recommendations that I can see in the near future,” Noem said while speaking at a local event in late August. “I think this is where we expected we would be. None of this is a surprise.”
The state was once considered a safe spot to isolate from the virus, but Noem’s persistence to keep businesses and schools open—to serve business owners, tourists, students and teachers—without a statewide mask mandate comes with a consistent increase in the number of daily positive cases since early September.
The governor has argued in the past that the science on wearing masks is “very mixed” and has made untruthful remarks about asymptomatic coronavirus patients, noting that they “very rarely spread the virus.”
Noem, an ally of President Donald Trump, served in the House of Representatives from 2011 and 2019 and has shot down recent rumors swirling in local headlines about her potentially running as the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.
“I spent eight years in Washington, DC,” Noem said on a call in July with the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think-tank based in Minnesota. “I am so happy to be home in South Dakota.”
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.