North Dakota Legislature moves to require masks at Capitol

December 1, 2020 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers decided Tuesday to require masks at least temporarily at the state Capitol, a move that is supported by legislative leaders but opposed by far-right members of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner told reporters they support a mask mandate at Capitol legislative spaces to help protect lawmakers and the public.

Senate and House lawmakers approved rules Tuesday afternoon to cover the three-day organizational session only. Both chambers are expected to finalize the rules Thursday for the session that convenes Jan. 5.

“We want to err on the side of caution, and safely do the work people have elected us to do,” Wardner said.

The organizational session comes as state health officials on Tuesday reported 27 new deaths due to complications from the coronavirus, increasing the total number of fatalities to 954.

A total of 409 new positive tests also were reported Tuesday.

Hospitalizations due to complications from the coronavirus dropped for the first time in six days in North Dakota, according to state health officials.

Officials said there are 319 patients in medical facilities around the state, a decrease of 12 in the last day. The most recent data shows only 14 staffed intensive care unit beds and 2246 staffed inpatient beds available statewide.

There were about 1,890 new cases per 100,000 people in North Dakota over the past two weeks, which ranks first in the country for new cases per capita, according to the COVID Tracking Project. One in every 130 people in North Dakota tested positive in the past week.

A memo written by the Legislature’s lawyers to lawmakers said the lawmakers have the authority to impose restrictions on areas of the Capitol controlled by the legislative branch. If a mask mandate is adopted, lawmakers who ignore the mandate may be removed by law enforcement and charged with a misdemeanor crime or expelled from the Legislature.

Pollert said he was not ready to discuss what would happen if a mandate is passed and rejected by some lawmakers. He and Wardner said lawmakers may attend meetings virtually.

Gov. Doug Burgum imposed a mandate in November after months of refraining from such an order, hoping to stem a coronavirus surge that is among the worst in the U.S. and that threatens to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.

Burgum’s order does not cover spaces controlled by the Legislature, the leaders said.

The Legislature’s organizational session typically is mundane. Lawmakers lobby for prime committee assignments behind closed doors but also perform some work such as filling out paperwork as they prepare for the session to begin.

Tuesday’s opening day includes computer training sessions and briefings on legislative procedures for new lawmakers.

The session ends shortly after Burgum gives his budget recommendations to legislators on Thursday.