A YEAR OF COVID
COMMENTARY BY JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
One year ago this week, the front page of The Courier featured a photo of Sonora Myers and an accompanying story about the stage production in which she would take on the leading role – “Matilda The Musical.”
It was the issue of March 12, and Myers and the team behind the production of the 2020 Schmeckfest musical was just eight days away from opening night. But circumstances beyond anybody’s control had something to say about it and it wasn’t long before the rhythms and workings of the everyday world changed.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic’s invasion on South Dakota and the rest of the country’s way of life. COVID-19 had already been a reality in other parts of the world, but it hit home that second week of March, when South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem announced that four confirmed cases had been reported in the Mt. Rushmore State, and that a man in his 60s with underlying health conditions had died.
The next evening, of March 11, the NBA made an unprecedented move that set the tone for the seriousness of the situation when it suspended its season “until further notice,” which would ultimately lead to its cancelation.
Then, on the evening of Thursday, March 12, Will Ortman, director of “Matilda The Musical,” gathered his cast and crew and informed them that rehearsals were being suspended and the future of the 2020 Schmeckfest, and therefore the production they had been working on since January, was very much in question.
On Friday the 13th, Schmeckfest officials and Freeman Academy officially announced that the 2020 festival would be suspended indefinitely — a move that ultimately led to its cancelation for the first time in its 62-year history.
It was the first of multiple casualties on account of the threat of COVID-19, a novel and highly contagious virus spread through surfaces and close contacts that impacted people in different ways and to varying degrees. Because it was new and the first time in 100 years that a worldwide pandemic was raising a high level of concern, a lot of uncertainty accompanied those first few days and weeks. The South Dakota High School Activities Association suspended the State Girls Basketball Tournaments after the first day of competition on Thursday, March 12 and then canceled both it and the State Boys Basketball Tournaments scheduled for the following weekend.
Schools suspended in-person instruction beginning Monday, March 15, and the buildings would remain closed for the rest of the term.
Church bodies stopped meeting in person, other spring and summer activities were canceled — including the South Dakota Chislic Festival and South Dakota Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale — and Zoom and FaceTime became a preferred method of meeting.
Cities and other government agencies, meanwhile, weighed in on what their response should be in terms of shutting businesses down and regulating other larger gatherings, and the use of face coverings quickly became prevalent — and also the subject of fierce debate. So were stay-at-home orders, as some felt that erring on the side of caution was prudent and responsible while others said that was a violation of their freedoms. Noem never did issue a stay-at-home order and said that the use of masks should be strictly voluntary – a leadership decision that is both criticized and praised even today.
Hand sanitizer and toilet paper fell in short supply, meat prices skyrocketed and even canning supplies were hard to come by later in the summer.
The terms “social distancing” and “six feet apart” became part of the everyday vernacular and people quickly learned about Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 continued to spread and, yes, people died because of it.
While cases rose incrementally across the state, the local area and other rural areas lagged well behind areas with larger populations. By June, for example, there had been just five confirmed cases in Hutchinson County and three to the north, in McCook County.
But all of that changed late in the year with a significant surge across South Dakota.
The total number of confirmed cases jumped from 13,749 on Sept. 1 to 23,136 on Oct. 1 to 47,324 on Nov. 1. In that same time period, active cases went from 2,750 to 3,832 to 13,138.
Hospitalizations jumped from 78 to 421 from Sept. 1 to Nov. 1
Deaths rose from 167 to 437 in that same timeframe.
By the end of the year, South Dakota had reported just under 100,000 total confirmed cases, 5,700 active cases and 1,501 deaths.
But the numbers would begin falling in January.
The report from the South Dakota Department of Health issued just this Tuesday, March 8, shows the total cases at 113,753, active cases at 2,097 and deaths at 1,901.
To say it’s been a long, hard and confusing year is an understatement.
And while this one-year anniversary is hardly one to celebrate, The Courier plans to mark the occasion with a significant look at how the pandemic has impacted ways of life across the board, from families to schools to businesses.
There are, after all, stories to be told and historic moments in time to document.
It’s been that kind of year.