SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Staff and inmates at South Dakota prisons are no longer required to wear masks following an order from Gov. Kristi Noem lifting the requirement.
The Republican governor's move, announced to prison staff on Saturday, comes as virus cases have seen a recent uptick and defies a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks still be worn in facilities like prisons where large numbers of people are in close proximity to each other. Among neighboring states, South Dakota is the only one to lift a mask requirement in prisons, the Argus Leader reported
Noem's move was spurred by a meeting she had with employees at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. They cheered when she told them they could remove their masks during a meeting Friday. The governor was at the prison to respond to an ongoing human resources investigation into complaints of low employee morale, shorthanded prison staff and insufficient tactical gear for corrections officers.
Noem's spokesman Ian Fury told the Argus Leader the governor would have made the move even sooner if she was aware of the Department of Corrections policy. He said it was “common sense” given the rate of virus cases and would help boost employee morale.
But cases were on the rise in South Dakota last week after dropping during the spring and early summer. The Department of Health reported new cases nearly doubled last week, reaching 200, new infections statewide. Fresh waves of the virus across the country prompted the CDC to change course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in places where the delta variant of the virus is prevalent.
The governor criticized the CDC's shift and noted that South Dakota's case rates remain low compared with other points during the pandemic.
South Dakota's prisons last year suffered through one of the nation’s worst rates for infections. Two out of every three inmates were infected with COVID-19, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.
The Department of Corrections said 70% of inmates have received at least one vaccination. It does not track the vaccination rate among staff.