Kristi Noem: It's not conservative to ban businesses from mandating vaccines for employees

AP Photo/James Nord, File

“When leaders overstep their authority, that is how we break this country,” she says in the clip below, announcing her position. “It is not conservative to grow government and to tell businesses what to do and how to treat their employees.”

Correct. “Your shop, your rules” is a basic conservative principle, subject to labor laws (boooo) and a few select exceptions for business practices targeting core traits protected by antidiscrimination laws (race, sex, religion, etc.). The order issued by Ron DeSantis in Florida barring businesses like cruise lines from setting their own rules on vaccination for passengers is a subtle way to bootstrap being unvaccinated into the category of a “core trait,” whose exclusion from a place of business could only be explained as a matter of irrational prejudice.

I would have expected Noem to follow suit. She’s been keen to remind Republican primary voters that she’s the only governor who never issued a stay-at-home order last year, obviously resenting that it’s DeSantis who’s emerged as the hero of anti-lockdown America while railing against “Faucian dystopias” and “biomedical security states.” Noem has been trying to get to his right on that, nudging GOPers that he’s not as anti-lockdown as he pretends. In order to stay to his right, one would expect she’d take a firm line against employer vaccine mandates too.

But no, surprisingly she’s not going to stand in the way of those. In fact, it sounds from this like she’s preparing to veto any bill that would ban them, a bold gesture given how it risks damaging her cred as a righty populist. Good for her for doing the right thing. Watch, then read on.

Is this a matter of conservative principle for Noem or is it a matter of business? Some background from the AP:

House Speaker Spencer Gosch said late Friday he wanted the governor to call a special session as he released a draft of a bill that would make COVID-19 vaccination status “strictly confidential medical information” that would be off-limits to employers. The state’s largest employer, Sanford Health, plans to require all employees to get a shot by Nov. 1.

However, whether or not the governor calls a special session may have little bearing on the deadlines employers throughout the state have set for employees to be vaccinated. In order to cause any passed bill to take immediate effect before the deadlines, it must gain a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. With some in Senate leadership already opposed to the mandate bans, that is unlikely.

Sanford Health’s vaccine mandate has been the subject of protests over the past month. Back in March, when Noem stunned conservatives by refusing to sign a bill barring transgender women from collegiate women’s sports, activists accused her of having had her arm twisted by the NCAA and the Chamber of Commerce. If she had signed the bill, the theory went, some businesses might have pulled out of South Dakota in protest. So Noem put SD’s bottom line first.

Is that what happened here too? Did Sanford Health warn of economic repercussions if Noem moved ahead with the ban on employer vaccine mandates?

There’s a third possibility. Maybe Noem considered conservative principle *and* her state’s economic interests *and* the fact that there may be a new wave of COVID brewing in her home state. Letting employers impose vaccine mandates on staff will mean less disruption to business if/when South Dakota gets slammed by the virus again:

I wrote about the post-Sturgis surge in SD a few days ago. Case numbers are still small but the state had gone months without a blip from COVID before the festival began. Maybe Noem’s calculating that she can’t get away politically with mandating vaccines for state workers but she can help build population immunity in anticipation of the next wave by standing aside and letting private employers do the dirty work.

After all, if she’s measuring her performance against DeSantis’s (or expecting that primary voters will), she should be nervous about a Florida-style tidal wave crashing in South Dakota. Yesterday Florida became the first state to set its record for daily COVID deaths in the post-vaccine era. Some funeral homes and crematoria there are so overwhelmed that bodies are being stacked up for processing, a scene familiar from hard-hit states last year but one nobody imagined was possible after vaccines became ubiquitous. Delta is a terrible scourge.

I’ll leave you with Mitch McConnell, who’s never bothered to flirt with anti-vaxxers.