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In South Dakota, freedom trumps the coronavirus

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Sioux Falls (United States) (AFP)

For months, sparsely populated South Dakota watched as the coronavirus ravaged far-off US coastal cities. The state now has one of the largest outbreaks in the country, but its governor refuses to impose a lockdown.

An AFP team is crisscrossing the rural countryside this week to take the pulse (and temperature) of the few American communities still living normally.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota's largest city with slightly fewer than 200,000 residents, shops and businesses opened Monday morning as if the pandemic stopped short at the borders of the Midwestern state.

Most of the bars are closed, and restaurants are only offering takeout, but hairstylists are styling, florists are making bouquets, tattoo artists are tattooing and fitness buffs are sweating away in gyms -- albeit in much smaller groups.

"South Dakota is not New York," said Governor Kristi Noem. The state, best known for its massive presidential busts carved directly into the granite of Mount Rushmore, has little more than four residents per square half mile (one square kilometer).

Many South Dakotans believe they are safe from the virus, surrounded by sweeping wheat and corn fields, cattle ranches and vast Native American reservations.

"You have to be careful about where you go and of your hygiene, but it's not too big of a deal here 'cause we're spread out, much more than in big cities," said Lane Stone, a 17-year-old high school student. He and two friends -- who were shirtless to take advantage of the sunshine -- were working out in a park.

Farther along the waterfalls of the Big Sioux River, for which the town is named, Pastor Spencer Aalsburg sits on a bench immersed in a collection of poems. He says he trusts the authorities to make "wise decisions."

"If we act wisely, I think we can hold on. I don't know if we need a lockdown," the 42-year-old said, acknowledging that he is in a privileged position.

"The fact that we can come out... is a blessing."

- Responsibility and common sense -

Until the beginning of April, South Dakota had recorded only about 100 cases of COVID-19. It currently has nearly 1,700 cases and seven deaths, mainly due to a pork processing plant that became the biggest infection outbreak in the country, with nearly 900 people directly exposed among the factory employees and their families.

Despite an open letter from health professionals, petitions from citizens worried about living far from medical resources and pressure from elected officials within her own Republican Party, Governor Noem is unflinching in her stance: Locking down is out of the question.

The 48-year-old conservative leader prefers to appeal to the "personal responsibility" and "common sense" of her fellow South Dakotans, so that they don't have to "give up their liberties for just a little bit of security."

The four other US states -- Arkansas, North Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska -- that have also refused to issue lockdown orders all have Republican governors. And that's not a coincidence.

The US response to the coronavirus has grown increasingly political, as President Donald Trump champs at the bit to quickly reopen the country and restart the economy ahead of his reelection battle in November.

Anti-lockdown protests have popped up over the last few days throughout a country in love with personal freedom, something its citizens hold almost sacred.

"We'll never be truly free as long as there's some type of government rule that tells you what to do and how to do it," said Zachary Rinder, a 32-year-old maintenance worker who came to fish for pike with his family in the Sioux Falls River.

"God gives us free will. People will take the precautions and everything, but they're still going to be the rebels that say, 'Hey, I'm actually gonna go out fishing. I'm going to quarantine,'" he said. "But I'm going to do it on my terms."

"It's inevitable, we are all gonna get sick one way or another," Rinder added.

South Dakota, which Trump carried in 2016 with 60 percent of the vote, stands out in another way in its fight against the pandemic: It is the first US state to set up a large-scale clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine, a treatment hailed as a "gift from God" by the president but with disputed effectiveness against the virus.

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