South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Republican National Convention in August. Photo Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images

The South Dakota Department of Health on Saturday reported 54 new deaths from COVID-19, surpassing the state’s previous record death total of 53.

The same day, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem encouraged state residents in a tweet to go shopping, writing that small “businesses are the lifeblood of so many South Dakota communities.”

Noem, a Republican, has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate and has otherwise disputed science and calls to enact stricter measures to contain the virus in the state.

Over the past week, more than 42% of COVID-19 tests in South Dakota administered have come back positive, according to data analyzed by Johns Hopkins University. 

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The South Dakota Department of Health on Saturday reported 54 new COVID-19 deaths since Friday, the highest single-day increase in deaths of all time in the state as cases of the virus surge statewide.

The previous record, 53, was set earlier this month on November 14, the Rapid City Journal reported. As the outlet noted, there have been 942 deaths in the state from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus since the pandemic began, with more than half of those — 517 — occurring in the month of November. There were more than 800 new cases diagnosed in the state Saturday.

But hours earlier, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, encouraged state residents to go shopping to support local businesses.

“Remember, today is #SmallBusinessSaturday,” Noem tweeted Saturday morning. “These businesses are the lifeblood of so many South Dakota communities. Please support them today and every day! #shopsmall.”

Earlier in the week, Noem, who has been in office since 2019, celebrated the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions that imposed limits on capacity at religious services to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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“Another thing to add to the list of reasons to be very thankful today,” Noem said in a tweet Thursday.

In addition to refusing to issue a statewide mask mandate, Noem has also defended individuals who neglect to wear masks despite repeated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and health experts who have pleaded that widespread adoption of mask-wearing would curb the spread of the disease.

A CDC study in Kansas reported last week reaffirmed that mask mandates are effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

“We talk often about the government’s role in a situation like this in dealing with a pandemic,” Noem said on November 18, disputing that the lack of a mask mandate was responsible for a surge in cases, according to The Associated Press. “At this point, frankly, I’m getting more concerned about how neighbors are treating neighbors.”

Noem said that it was an individual’s “personal decision” to wear a mask, refused to encourage residents to wear a mask or to practice social distancing, and claimed the most effective way to combat COVID-19 spread was through handwashing, according to the AP.

There have been more than 79,000 cases of COVID-19 in South Dakota diagnosed since the pandemic began, per Johns Hopkins University data. Over the past week, more than 42% of all COVID-19 tests administered there have come back positive. That’s more than four times higher than the 9.4% national positivity rate, according to the Hopkins data.

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