CNN  — 

South Dakota is, by any measure, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus surge in the United States right now. The state has averaged more than 1,000 cases every day this month, according to The New York Times. Deaths from Covid-19 have surged 74% in just the last two weeks. Forbes just called South Dakota one of the 10 riskiest states in the country to visit.

And how is Kristi Noem, the state’s Republican governor, reacting to all of this?

“It’s a good day for freedom,” her office said in a statement Friday. “Joe Biden realizes that the president doesn’t have the authority to institute a mask mandate. For that matter, neither does Governor Noem, which is why she has provided her citizens with the full scope of the science and trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved-ones.”

Yes, amid a rapidly declining situation in South Dakota, Noem is making sure people know that if President-elect Joe Biden moves to institute a national mask mandate, she won’t comply. Way to stay focused on what matters!

Noem’s positioning on a national mask mandate is consistent with the hands-off approach she has adopted throughout the pandemic. South Dakota was one of a handful of states to never have a stay-at-home order. And Noem has been positively Trumpian in how she talks about masks and their efficacy. She articulated her views in an op-ed written last month:

“There are many others who question the effectiveness of masks, and South Dakotans should take the time to read this information so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. As I’ve said before, if folks want to wear a mask, they should be free to do so. Similarly, those who don’t want to wear a mask shouldn’t be shamed into wearing one. And government should not mandate it. We need to respect each other’s decisions – in South Dakota, we know a little common courtesy can go a long way.

“Recently, a South Dakota doctor wrote me, thanking me ‘for treating your fellow citizens of South Dakota like adults…’ I tell you this because there are also some South Dakota medical professionals who have written to tell me of their fears about voicing their thoughts on the situation.”

Oh, an unnamed doctor, you say? How does that anecdote compare to the mountain of evidence that suggests mask-wearing works to mitigate the spread of the virus? Or this from Robert Redfield, the head of the CDC: “We are not defenseless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

So, yeah.

If Noem needs an example of how you put partisanship aside and address the surge in COVID-19 cases as a public health emergency, she only needs to look to her neighbor to the north. On Friday, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, also a Republican, issued a statewide mask mandate aimed at dealing with his state’s grown coronavirus crisis. “Our situation has changed, and we must change with it,” Burgum said by way of explaining why he was reversing course on a mask mandate and other strictures designed to limit the spread of the virus.

What’s the difference between the approaches to the current crisis by Burgum and Noem? National political aspirations, mostly. Noem, since her days in Congress, has been mentioned as someone who might wind up on a Republican national ticket someday. (For what it’s worth, South Dakotans continue to give Noem positive marks.)

And, in the current iteration of the Republican Party, that means following President Donald Trump’s lead on making masks a political statement rather than a public health necessity. The key isn’t to keep as many people safe as possible. It’s to make sure you show there is no space between yourself and the President.

So Noem continues to fight the science even as the virus sickens more and more of her constituents.

She (and Republicans in the state and nationally) will undoubtedly note that South Dakotans continue to give Noem positive marks about how she is handling the job. But consider this testimonial to CNN’s “New Day” from South Dakota emergency room nurse Jodi Doering about treating Covid patients who “don’t want to believe that Covid is real:”

“Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real.’ And when they should be… Facetiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred.”

Leadership isn’t telling people what they want to hear. In moments like this, it’s telling people hard truths – even if you know that it might hurt you politically. Noem is putting politics over public health, which, well, puts her right in line with how Trump has handled this entire pandemic.